Loveland Pass: An audacious plan |

Loveland Pass: An audacious plan

Rick Spitzer
Vail, CO Colorado
Rick Spitzer/Special to the DailySign at the summit of Loveland Pass

U.S. 6 crosses Loveland Pass at an elevation of 11,990 feet and provides the traveler with some very spectacular views. Since the opening of the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel in 1973, fewer travelers use Loveland Pass. Going through the tunnel rather than over Loveland Pass saves a driver 9.5 miles and a half an hour of time, but they miss out on the views!

W.A. Loveland lends his name to this famous Colorado pass located 60 miles west of Denver. He gained his fortune as a railroad entrepreneur and businessman, but he also founded the city of Golden and convinced the Colorado Territorial Legislature to establish the Colorado School of Mines in his city.

Unable to extend his railroad line, the Colorado Central Railroad, over the pass, Loveland built a wagon road across it in 1879. In the 1930s, Charles Vail, the state highway engineer, converted the wagon road into an automobile highway. It was paved in 1950.

Driving over Loveland Pass was, and still is, a challenge, particularly in winter when avalanches frequently close the road. Large trucks trying to make it up the steep grade often slow traffic on the 9.5-mile, two-lane road.

With the passage of time, Loveland Pass became a bottleneck for travelers trying to get from Denver to destinations west of there. By the 1960s, I-70 reached the base of Loveland Pass with nowhere to go. The Interstate needed a divided highway with two lanes in each direction, and Loveland Pass was not the solution. Even though a number of railroad engineers had unsuccessfully attempted to tunnel at this location, highway engineers devised a new, audacious plan to construct a 1.7-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide, enabling them to bypass Loveland Pass all together.

Construction of the tunnel, to be called the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, began on March 15, 1968. Four companies worked for five years to complete the first of the twin bores under the Continental Divide. The effort required more than a thousand laborers year-round. The second bore was completed in 1979.

The tunnel immediately created a huge economic impact on western Colorado and its ski areas. Travelers not only could avoid the dangerous drive and thick traffic over Loveland Pass, but also saved time and money as well. Even though the Eisenhower Tunnel eliminates a difficult and sometimes dangerous drive, the approaches to the tunnel may still be treacherous when winter driving conditions exist.

The elevation at the east entrance to the Eisenhower Tunnel is 11,012 feet, and the west entrance is at 11,158 feet, making it the highest vehicular tunnel in the world. Where the tunnel crosses the divide, it is 1,496 feet below the surface. The tunnel is about 50 feet high and 1.7 miles long. Costs for the Eisenhower Tunnel exceeded $116.9 million dollars for the westbound bore and $144.9 million for the eastbound bore.

The tunnel is staffed 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. This staff assures the tunnel’s safety by providing tunnel washing and maintenance, traffic management, inspections for over-height and hazardous materials vehicles, emergency response, and snow removal.

The tunnel’s safety crews monitor from a control room equipped with 38 color monitors attached to 42 cameras that they can tilt, zoom, and pan left and right. This technology permits the crew to respond quickly to vehicle stalls, accidents, or fire. Full color cameras and sensors at both tunnel portals watch for oversize trucks and haulers of hazardous materials-these vehicles are generally not allowed to use the tunnel, and must go over Loveland Pass instead. Crews use stoplights and sirens to prevent them from entering the tunnel. When US 6 over Loveland Pass is closed, they stop tunnel traffic on the hour to allow oversize trucks and hazardous materials transporters to proceed through the tunnel.

Power for the tunnel and its control rooms, lights, and ventilation system costs about $1,000,000 a year. The tunnel averages 30,000 vehicles per day, with a high of over 50,000. No traffic-related fatalities have been recorded after thirty years and 200 million vehicles. On some weekend evenings and afternoons, eastbound demand exceeds the maximum volume of the two lanes. When this happens, the westbound tunnel is coned, and signal lights in the tunnel change to indicate two-way traffic in that bore. This allows traffic in that tunnel to proceed with one lane in each direction, thus providing three eastbound lanes.

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Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.

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