Mountain alliance criticizes widening highway |

Mountain alliance criticizes widening highway

Allen Best
Daily file photo Mountain towns and governments have formed a coalition to push for alternatives to highway widening to ease traffic congestion on Interstate 70. The Eisenhower Tunnel is a critical spot in gauging how many cars the highway can handle.

As they have for the last six years, county governments from Georgetown to Glenwood Springs continue to tilt against the windmills of Colorado transportation planning.In their latest show of solidarity regarding Interstate 70, four county governments – Clear Creek, Summit, Eagle, and Garfield – have formed a coalition with most of their towns. Their agreement at this point is extremely thin, but it’s a belief that highway widening is not the ultimate answer to I-70 congestion.With a collective voice, the counties and towns hope their concepts will have stronger influence. “The ultimate solution should not be widening the highway 10 years from now, widen it 20 years from now, and widen it 30 years from now,” says JoAnn Sorensen, a Clear Creek commissioner who is a key organizer of the alliance. But a study by the Colorado Department of Transportation that so far has taken 4 1/2 years and cost $16.6 million sees no alternative to widening the highway – at least not for the next decade. Called a “programmatic environmental impact statement,” the study finds alternatives such as futuristic monorails unworkable or prohibitively expensive.

By some estimates, a monorail could cost $5 billion or more, although defenders protest that highway widening might itself ultimately cost that much without as much capacity increase. And in the next 20 years, no more than $1 billion will be available for any project, say transportation planners.Even minimal highway widening through Clear Creek County would cost $800 million. The widening envisioned by Colorado’s top transportation officials includes building more tunnels near Idaho Springs and at the Eisenhower Tunnel, while expand stretches of highway between the two, including a double-decker alignment through Idaho Springs similar to that found in Glenwood Springs. In their sole concession to mass transit, the state planners envision buses getting a dedicated lane, guided by rails between the outskirts of Denver and Silverthorne, and from there set free to go to Breckenridge, Vail and points beyond. Buying into the visionCorridor communities buy into at least some highway widening. Clear Creek County residents, who would bear the brunt, are least impressed, but even they see value in smoothing existing pinchpoints such as at Empire Junction, where Highway 40 traffic from Winter Park converges.

Eagle County and Vail, in turn, want some widening of their own – specifically, a tunnel through Dowd Butte – to allow a west-bound lane to bypass Dowd Junction.But the hard lines in this debate are in the old mining towns of Idaho Springs, Georgetown and Silver Plume, where noise, fumes and the sheer size of the swelling highway are more intrusive. “We need to make sure the communities don’t die as a result” of getting more people up and down the corridor, says Sorensen.Even the most ambitious highway widening, however, will not keep up with the projected growth in demand, she points out. The highways will be broader, noisier and smellier, but no less crowded.Yet what is the answer? Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom, a state house candidate, is contemptuous of the state’s proposal for guided buses. People will not ride buses, he insists.

Reliability, not speedBert Melcher of Denver, a Sierra Club representative, takes the opposite view. He concedes that buses still lack the glamour of trains, but cites improvements that make them more functional. And they can be pressed into service in short order, he adds. Melcher also says monorail supporters got sidetracked from the real issue. Speed is not of the essence, he says, reliability is. And if that is the criterion, existing technology can be adapted to the I-70 corridor with its steep grades, long distances, and uneven use.Sorensen said she wonders if the department of transportation has it backward. Instead of thinking of transportation pulsing from metro Denver, she believes a mass transit system could be extended from the Eagle County Regional Airport to Vail and then Summit County.But even after 15 years of direct flights to Eagle, a majority of winter visitors at Vail and Beaver Creek arrive via Denver International Airport, and in Summit County the proportion is dramatically higher.Yet another idea – one that so far has received no serious discussion – is creation of a regional transportation district along the I-70 corridor, similar to the RTD that services communities from Boulder to Evergreen to Parker in metro Denver. Such a district would presumably offer better links by buses.In the end, no broad consensus exists about what type of mass transit would both sound for the I-70 corridor. But an even more important question may be who would use it and who would pay.

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