Labor Day traffic expected to increase in the Vail Valley and Colorado | VailDaily.com

Labor Day traffic expected to increase in the Vail Valley and Colorado

Traffic will be heavy this weekend on Interstate 70 via Eisenhower Johnson Tunnels. Despite the highest gas prices since 2014, holiday weekend is expected to increase over 2017 levels

EAGLE COUNTY — If it's a summer holiday weekend, then the Vail Valley is usually pretty full, as is Interstate 70. That seems to be the case this year, despite the highest gas prices in about four years.

Bob Wilson, of the Colorado Department of Transportation, said that agency is expecting heavy I-70 traffic during the usual times. That means motorists already in the valley can expect delays if they're going home on Monday, Sept. 3.

The I-70 Coalition is a group of local governments and businesses along the I-70 corridor from Eagle County to the west end of the Denver area.

Coalition director Margaret Bowes said avoiding those delays is often a matter of timing.

"There's going to be a lot of traffic, but it's predictable," Bowes said. "People who choose off-peak travel will encounter less traffic." The Coalition's website — http://www.goi70.com — provides real-time traffic information, as well as travel tips and some deals for those who want to delay their eastbound trips.

Another toll lane

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That program has had some success, Bowes said. But both Bowes and Wilson said motorists have also benefited from the eastbound I-70 toll lane that runs for 13 miles through Clear Creek County, from about Empire to just east of Idaho Springs.

Bowes said the toll lane has decreased travel times, even for those who stay in the un-tolled lanes.

In fact, the toll lane has been so successful that work will begin in 2019 on a westbound toll lane in the same area.

Funding for the project, which Wilson said should last about two years, is coming from a combination of both state and federal funds. The state funded the eastbound toll lane and is paying for the projects with tolls.

That toll lane project is needed before work can begin to add another westbound lane from the top of Floyd Hill, in Jefferson County, to the I-70 intersection with U.S. Highway 6.

Given the lack of funding for a comprehensive upgrade of the I-70 corridor, Bowes said those smaller projects will have to reduce traffic in relatively small amounts.

Growing traffic, rising prices

And traffic is growing, especially in the summer.

Wilson noted that I-70 historically carries more traffic in the summer, particularly from the Fourth of July through late August, with another spike on Labor Day. The largest traffic numbers recorded at the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnels have come during summer months. In 2017, more than 192,000 vehicles went through the tunnels from Friday through Monday of Labor Day weekend.

Wilson said there's been "a little growth" in traffic numbers at the tunnels this year.

But Skyler McKinley, of AAA Colorado, said that organization expects to see Labor Day weekend traffic increase by 6 percent or 7 percent. This year, that means as many as 640,000 state residents will travel 50 or miles from home over the weekend.

That holiday weekend increase comes despite a significant increase in fuel prices compared to 12 months ago.

The weekly fuel cost chart from AAA Colorado showed the average price of regular gas was $3.26 per gallon as of Wednesday, Aug. 29. The price was $2.39 per gallon on Aug. 30, 2017.

McKinley said Colorado's strong economy is a major factor in the continued interest in driving vacations. Acknowledging that "nobody wants to pay more" for gas, McKinley said that gas at $3.25 per gallon still isn't a barrier to driving.

"Most Coloradans said $3.50 (per gallon) is where they'll start to change their driving behavior," McKinley said. For those who use unleaded — which should be almost all of us, he said — it looks as if the state won't hit that barrier this year.

With summer travel easing, and with gasoline companies moving away from more-expensive summer blend fuel, McKinley said he expects to see fuel prices start to drop in the next couple of weeks, with smaller bumps coming over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

That means whenever you do travel this weekend, you're going to have quite a bit of company.

"There's no need for road rage," McKinley said. "Just relax and enjoy the scenery."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

By the numbers

Here’s a look at gas prices around the Vail Valley and Colorado. All prices are for a gallon of regular gasoline.

West Vail Shell: $3.30.

Eagle: $3.15.

Grand Junction: $2.96.

Denver: $2.81.

Sources: West Vail Shell, AAA Colorado