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Mass transit seen as tricky fix

by Allen Best/Special to the Daily

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about the Colorado Department of Transportation’s extensive study of Interstate 70.

Because space for Interstate 70 is so narrow, there is not enough room in some places for both mass transit and additional traffic lanes, at least not without moving mountains, which would be both expensive and environmentally dubious.

With this in mind, one idea is to dedicate new lanes between Golden and Silverthorne to buses now, but that those bus lanes could in the future be converted to a monorail or some other mass-transit technology.

That’s the position of Bert Melcher, who represents the Sierra Club. Active for 40 years in battles over I-70, he was influential in getting the original route from Silverthorne to Vail removed from shorter, straighter Red Buffalo Pass, leaving primitive lands intact.

Now, while he sees the need to “get people out of their cars,” he sees it happening in phases.

In Eagle, County Commissioner Michael Gallagher calls for a higher immediate priority for a mass transit, one connecting Denver International with Eagle County Regional, already Colorado’s first and second busiest airports during winter months.

“We have to think beyond today, and we have to think beyond pavement,” says Gallagher. Such a monorail system, called a monorail in the plan, should be seen as the first link between Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, he believes.

If monorail advocates seem to think big, it is the only way to think when considering the I-70 corridor 20 to 50 years from now, they say. It will be just impossible to add enough pavement to keep up with demand, a position that Colorado Department of Transportation planners concede.

Mountain mix

Consensus for stop-gap highway improvements may be narrow, but agreement about mass transit solutions is even more limited. Simply put, there’s nothing to copy, at least not a mass transit system for a high-volume, high-speed mountainous corridor like I-70.

Department of Transportation planners introduced the idea of hybrid buses. Such buses would be guided by rails between Golden and Silverthorne, and from Silverthorne would become conventional vehicles. Unlike the Sierra Club, Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom. scoffs that people won’t ride buses.

Lindstrom continues to carry the torch for a monorail of some sort, as has been advocated by mountain residents since 1997. But absent anything remotely resembling a show-and-tell for how such a monorail in conditions similar to the I-70 corridor, backers have been subjected to ridicule, such as Gov. Bill Owens, who two years ago dismissed the monorail as an extravagant Disneyland ride.

Owens’ comment was made in anticipation of a vote by Colorado voters to spend $50 million in research and development of a monorail. A majority of voters in only four counties – Clear Creek, Summit, Lake, and Eagle – among Colorado’s then 63 counties endorsed the plan.

Even metropolitan Denver, theoretically the greatest beneficiary of improved I-70 transportation, soundly rejected the idea, as did voters as transit-friendly Aspen and Boulder.

Traffic problem?

While I-70 is all-important to those who live along it, the existing weekend congestion pales in comparison to what many people along the Front Range confront on a daily basis.

Since then, monorail boosters grabbed onto the coattails of $4 million in federal studies of a somewhat different kind of monorail technology, called the Urban Maglev Technology Research and Development Program.

Miller Hudson, executive director of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority, says a report scheduled for release next year will describe the cost of a monorail using the technology. That report may point to a magnetic levitation system now under construction in Japan, and how it can be adapted to Colorado.

If that show-and-tell happens, it will be a breakthrough for monorail advocates, who so far have been forced into an imagine-this position. Still at issue, however, would be the cost, and whether people will ride it in sufficient numbers to warrant that cost.

While the best-known crush of congestion occurs on I-70 during ski season, the largest numbers actually occur during July and August, when people using the corridor have more dispersed destinations.

Brian Pinkerton, the Department of Transportation’s program engineer for the agency’s extensive environmental study of the highway, says the two rail-based alternatives for mass transit described in the study are “technologically generic,” to avoid getting prematurely bogged down in technical aspects

One is a more conventional electrical-powered train, while the second envisions magnetic levitation-powered rail-based vehicles or something similarly unconventional.

Engineers could develop an advanced guideway train for the I-70 corridor, even if no such train now exists anywhere in the world, says Pinkerton. But in this study the larger questions revolve around the cost, the environmental impacts and whether people will ride it.

The options being considered for Interstate 70:

Widening: Creating six lanes from Floyd Hill to the Eisenhower Tunnel, and also west of Vail at Dowd Canyon, including climbing lanes and new tunnels east of Idaho Springs, through the Continental Divide, and west of Vail. Cost: up to $2 billion.

Widening Plus: Same as above, but creating two lanes in the I-70 median that would be reversible to accommodate either eastbound or westbound traffic, as needs dictate. Lanes could become toll lanes or high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Bus Lanes: Creating two-way bus lanes from Golden to Eisenhower Tunnel, and a narrower eastbound bus-center lane from Silverthorne to Eisenhower.

Electric-powered Rail: A new electric-powered rail from Golden to Dowd Junction, and from Dowd Junction using the existing Union Pacific track to Eagle County Regional. Cost: $4.4 billion.

Monorail: Called an advanced guideway system, it would use maglev, and would run from Golden to Eagle County Regional. Estimated cost: $5.6 billion.


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