Legislation could alleviate I-70 congestion through mountains | VailDaily.com

Legislation could alleviate I-70 congestion through mountains

Robert Allen
summit daily news
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado – Two bills the state Legislature passed this month before ending its 2010 session could help ease Interstate 70 congestion before a long-term solution is reached.

One bill aims to keep traffic flowing in the fast lane up steeper grades. The other supports a feasibility study of a temporary, reversible lane to be used on a 15 mile stretch of the highway during peak traffic times.

State Sen. Dan Gibbs said that in a year when more than $1 billion has been cut from the state budget, it’s rewarding to pass meaningful legislation that doesn’t involve massive, $12 billion projects. The costs of new signs and some research will be relatively affordable.

Gibbs and Rep. Christine Scanlan, whose districts both include Summit County, sponsored the bills that passed through the Legislature with bipartisan support and only a handful of votes in opposition. Gibbs said he’s working with Gov. Bill Ritter’s office to have them signed in Summit County.

Pending Ritter’s signature, Senate Bill 196 will take effect July 1. Where the average uphill grade on I-70 is 6 percent or more for at least a mile, the new law will require that vehicles in the far left lane travel at speeds no less than 10 mph below the speed limit.

Exceptions include lane closures and weather conditions that require slower speeds, among others.

“(Colorado) State Patrol backed us on that bill; the reason they were interested is we came up with something that was actually enforceable,” Scanlan said.

She said she was climbing the hill near Georgetown last summer behind two semi trucks that were traveling about 25 mph. One truck moved to the left lane to pass the other, causing her to slam on the brakes.

“I looked back in the rearview mirror and there were 30 cars stacked up,” Scanlan said. “I left skidmarks that were there for weeks.”

The new law is intended to help eliminate the likelihood of such situations.

During peak traffic times, it’s not unusual to see traffic bumper-to-bumper in one direction of I-70 and nearly non-existent in the other direction.

Senate Bill 184 supports a study of whether it would ease problems to use concrete barriers to temporarily rededicate an inside lane on one side to traffic in the opposite direction. For example, on a Sunday afternoon when eastbound traffic is stacked up near Georgetown, a westbound lane would be reversed from there to the base of Floyd Hill.

Westbound traffic would be constricted to one lane. The technology has never been used in Colorado.

“This would be very unique to the nation,” said Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “Utah does it, but here’s the difficulty: No state has done it in this type of terrain and this type of weather with reducing traffic down to one lane.”

The results of a preliminary study through the University of Arizona – to determine whether traffic numbers could sustain the model envisioned – are to become available in the next week. If they show positive signs, the next step would involve an analysis to determine whether the zipper lane model would be feasible with snowplows, among many other details.

The bill includes a goal of getting the system online by January 2011, if the study shows it would work.

Stegman said the system would cost an estimated $26 million plus maintenance and a massive, $1 million vehicle that moves the barriers – in addition to operating costs.

The vehicle would move the barriers at a rate of about 10 miles per hour, meaning it would take about an hour and a half to create the temporary lane.

“We have to think outside the box,” Gibbs said. “And with no additional funds for transportation, I think most Coloradans want to see action. They want to see mobility improved, and this is potentially a way to improve travel times.”

Gibbs, a Democrat, last week ended his State Senate work as he runs for Summit County Commissioner. He was chair of the Senate Transportation Committee the past couple years, and he also championed I-70 issues in his term in the Statehouse.

“I just love working on issues that people can see – problems right in their own backyard,” he said, adding that he hopes communities along the I-70 corridor are represented in the transportation committee.

Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or rallen@summitdaily.com.

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