Locals challenged to tackle traffic jams | VailDaily.com

Locals challenged to tackle traffic jams

Matt Zalaznick

Locals could probably come up with a far better way to ease congestion on mountain highways than the state agency studying the problem, the valley’s Congressman said Wednesday.

Locals also could un-clog the worsening skier-and-big rig traffic jams more quickly than the Colorado Department of Transportation, U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, said during a visit to Eagle-Vail Wednesday.

The state transportation agency, familiarly known as CDOT, is in the midst of a sprawling analysis of how to speed up travel on the mountain stretch of Interstate 70.

“My concern with the CDOT plan is it’s slow. This an opportunity for communities and counties to take the initiative and make it clear what they want,” Udall told a small gathering of local business and political leaders during a late-morning talk that was longer on problems than proposed solutions.

To create more space on I-70 between Denver and Glenwood Springs, the transportation agency is analyzing several projects, including widening the interstate, building bus-only lanes and even, a monorail. But the agency is unlikely to begin any construction for at least a few years.

Meanwhile, many local merchants and lodge owners fear worsening congestion on the only freeway in and out of Vail could scare off potential customers.

A wider freeway, however, is not the answer, said Udall, adding he was one of the 30 percent of Coloradans who voted last November for a failed initiative to fund testing of a mountain monorail.

“We’re not going to build our way out of this with more traffic lanes,” he said.

Local business and community leaders could probably come up with ideas more quickly if they attacked congestion without waiting for the state to finish its study, Udall said.

“You have a right as communities with interest to start you’re own process,” Udall said.

Representatives from Vail Resorts are already discussing the problem with colleagues in Summit County, said Matt Sugar, director of public affairs for Vail Resorts Development Company.

“You want to find out what’s right for you and not be dictated to,” Sugar said. “It’s important we have a cohesive group to do that.”

Udall said I-70 is critical to a healthy Colorado economy. He also said he is looking beyond Republican Gov. Bill Owens for someone in state government to treat I-70 congestion as a serious threat to business.

“The new governor in 2006 is going to have to approach this as something very crucial to the state,” Udall said.

Immigration ignored

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, any efforts to revamp national immigration policy in a way that would benefit immigrants have been abandoned, Udall said.

This is especially harmful when it comes to the Mexican immigrants who are coming to Colorado in increasing numbers despite a tightening of U.S. borders, Udall said.

“Rather than denying it, how about embracing it and making it better for everyone involved,” Udall said.

It is in America’s best interests to cooperate with the Mexican government to both improve economic conditions in that country and make it easier for the country’s workers to live in the U.S., Udall said.

But the Bush Administration, which appeared ready to tackle the problem before Sept. 11, is likely to keep any such changes in immigration policy on the “back burner,” Udall said.

One problem are “demagogues” on the national scene who equate any illegal immigration with a threat to national security, Udall said.

Frank Johnson, president of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, said ignoring the ordeals of immigrants will be harmful for the local economy.

“We’re obviously poised to be in trouble,” Johnson said. “It’s time to focus on the future, not how do we stop what’s been happening over the last five years.”

Added to that outlook is the changing face of immigration in the valley, as an influx of Eastern Europeans are taking some of the service jobs traditionally held by Mexican nationals, said Steve Pope, chairman of the Vail Valley Chamber and publisher of the Vail Daily.

Jobs that a few years ago were dominated by Mexican workers are now dominated by Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians, Pope said.

“It’s happening off the radar screen and so rapidly, that we don’t see it,” Pope said. “It has happened overnight and it’s an incredible change.’

Ugly economics

The morning talk included a gloomy discussion of both the regional and national economy. Neither Udall nor any of the local leaders said they saw any reason to expect a vibrant rebound any time soon.

“The economy is still bumping along,” Udall said, adding the country was experiencing a “jobless” recovery.

While the economy may e be showing signs of sluggish growth in some sectors, many Americans are still jobless and businesses remain hesitant to make major investments, Udall said.

Locally, hotel bookings for the summer are stagnant, Johnson said.

“Nothing’s swinging out there to say this is going to be gangbusters,” Johnson said.

Local merchants also were discouraged by Vail Resorts announcement to its investors earlier this spring that the company was lowering earnings expectations for the ski season, said Vail Town Councilman Bill Jewitt, who also is an owner of Bart and Yeti’s bar in Lionshead.

“I’m concerned if Adam’s concerned,” Jewitt said, referring to Adam Aron, the chairman and chief operating officer of Vail Resorts.

Many at the meeting told Udall the best way to boost tourism in the valley – and in neighboring regions such as Aspen – is to find federal funding to build a radar that could increase the number of flights in and out of Eagle County Regional Airport.

The airport has the physical but not the technical capacity to handle more flights, Johnson said.

“There’s a lot that follows that radar,” Johnson said.

Udall said the state’s representative in Washington, D.C., have not stopped their search to fund the radar.

“It’s huge,” Udall said. “The number of landings and take-offs have to be increased.”

Wet worries

Water, both scarce and polluted, also is making local leaders anxious. In response to their fears, Udall said he sees Colorado regions cooperating more closely to bolster each other’s water supplies.

“I think water, for the most part, ought to stay over here. If it’s need for development on this side … so be it,” said Udall, whose Congressional District straddles the Continental Divide.

Udall said he supports studying the “big straw” concept, in which Colorado River water flowing across the state line into Utah would be pumped back into the mountains and potentially, over the Continental Divide to the Front Range.

“I think the study will show it’s expensive beyond measure,” Udall said. “There are a lot of other steps we ought to take first.”

Udall commended former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Todd Whitman, who left the Bush Administration earlier this month.

“She demonstrated that you can have a strong economy and a clean environment,” Udall said. “There are some in the administration who think differently.”

Staff members who accompanied Udall said there probably was not a lot of funding available to aid a local cleanup of Black Gore Creek, a polluted stream that flows down from Vail Pass into Gore Creek.

The stream has been strangled over the past decades by the traction sand the department of transportation pours on I-70 to keep the interstate from freezing during heavy snowstorms.

Udall suggested local organizations keep pressure on the state transportation agency. CDOT is already funding projects that should start to prevent more sand from spilling into the river though there are no plans to dredge out sand that is already in Black Gore Creek.

But without some significant federal involvement, the creek may run out of time, Pope warned.

“There isn’t a sense of urgency,” he said. “The creek is at the point if there isn’t remedial work done, the stream could die forever. I suggest that time frame is not the same time frame CDOT is planning the cleanup in.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.

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