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Mountains grapple with highway

Allen Best/Special to the Daily

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

Even the sternest critics of the Colorado Department of Transportation, the ones who call it the department of pavement, concede that today’s “listening forum” about Interstate 70 will be unusual, almost unprecedented.

At that 13-hour forum in Silverthorne, Department of Transportation boss Tom Norton and Bill Jones, regional chief of the Federal Highway Administration, are scheduled to hear from truckers and bicyclers, the Sierra Club and Club 20, and several dozen other governments, trade associations and political advocacy groups interested in changes to Colorado’s most important east-west artery.

“Is it important? Absolutely,” said Clear Creek County Commissioner JoAnn Sorensen. “They want to listen to us directly and our thoughts, instead of having them filtered by a study.”

Trains and lanes

This broad approach, called the I-70 Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, has been used only a few times in the nation, never in Colorado. Unlike most environmental impact statements, which review specific proposals for maybe six or seven miles of highway construction, this one more ambitiously is reviewing a wide range of options for a long corridor, the 144 miles from Golden to Glenwood Springs.

Already costing $23 million and six years in preparation, the study has examined virtually everything from the narrow-gauge train technology that was used for the first penetration of the Colorado mountains 120 years ago to futuristic space-age monorails.

While old coal-burning trains and alternative routes into the mountains through South Park are off the table, many other alternatives remain. Those alternatives are broadly of two categories.

One category involves upgrades to the existing highway. Options include new climbing lanes on steep sections, such as between Georgetown and Silverthorne; adding a new tunnel in the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel complex as well as tunnels east of Idaho Springs and west of Vail; and widening the highway to six lanes in Clear Creek County.

The second category involves implementing mass transit. Ideas include electric-powered rail, dedicated lanes for rail-guided buses, or a monorail, which the Department of Transportation calls an advanced guideway system.

Many, perhaps most, people testifying on today will call for both highway expansion while leaving the door open for mass transit. The delicate differences will be in priorities and money is a major constraint.

Transportation plans project I-70 will get only $1 billion during the next 20 years, and the least ambitious alternative, “minimal action” highway improvements, would cost $1.2 billion. Mass transit systems, they say, could cost up to $5.6 billion.

County wish-lists

A draft environmental study, to be issued next year, will contain the analysis of the last several years and will also contain what the transportation agency thinks should be done. A final decision on choices is not expected until at least 2005, and even then more study will be necessary. However, the subsequent site-specific environmental study will be less elaborate than is usually the case, because so much of the analysis is already being done.

Even the most ardent advocates of mass transit concede the need for some highway improvements. Among these advocates is Clear Creek County, which bears the largest brunt of I-70 as it crowds through Idaho Springs, Georgetown and other communities.

County residents want improvements east of Idaho Springs, partly to accommodate the growing traffic to the Central City-Blackhawk casinos. Clear Creek also foresees smoothing of pinch points, such as where travelers from Winter Park join I-70 at Empire Junction, often causing traffic to slow.

Clear Creek County also wants money devoted to technological solutions as well as traffic-moving strategies, such as those that could accommodate trucks more efficiently. Those smaller changes should occur before a more general widening of I-70 to Eisenhower Tunnel, says Sorensen.

Summit County more broadly endorses the full range of highway improvements to Golden, including six-laning from C-470 to the Eisenhower Tunnel. However, Summit County is allied with Eagle County in foreseeing a lessening of Denver International Airport’s importance to the mountain economy and a growing importance of Eagle County Regional Airport.

“They need a transportation plan that connects Summit County and Eagle County, so people can conceivably stay in Breckenridge and fly out of Eagle County region,” says County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom. “DIA is not the center of the universe.”

The bottom-line position for Summit County, and others, is do what’s necessary to expand the car-carrying capacity of the existing highway in the short term, but don’t let those modifications preclude future mass-transit solution.

Cars still king?

But can you have your cake and eat it too? Does it make sense to accommodate more cars on I-70 and shelve mass transit systems? Most organizations seem to be hedging their bets. Typical seems to be the position adopted by the Vail town government.

The Town Council has been fulminating about the noise pollution form I-70 but even now, wants to see additional highway improvements, particularly to increase the number of cars that can be accommodated in Dowd Canyon. That canyon is projected to see 110,000 cars a day by the year 2025, or roughly comparable to the traffic now carried by Interstate 25 north of south of metropolitan Denver.

To increase traffic volume, state engineers envision a tunnel through Dowd Butte, accommodating three west-bound lanes of traffic, and straightening the existing highway to make it safer and also faster, and making three lanes for east-bound traffic.

Overall, the ski industry’s position emphasizes short-term solutions.

“For the short term, we definitely need to increase the capacity,” says Rob Perlman, president of Colorado Ski Country USA. “We’re not at all opposed to looking at longer-term situations, but we don’t think that should delay us in looking at the short-term.

If even short-term money is in doubt, the question is even larger for long-term improvements. The federal government paid for 90 percent of the original highway, but now will pay for no more than half, and perhaps less – and that was before the federal government began plummeting into debt under the Bush administration.

This suggests additional state and local funding sources will be necessary. Perlman says his group is not opposed in principal to tolling, as is envisioned by one alternative, but ski area members of Ski Country have not talked about whether they would be willing to pick up some costs.

The broader strategy, he says, should be to persuade more Coloradans of the economic importance of the I-70 corridor to the tourism industry, Colorado’s second largest employer.

Eagle County Commissioner Michael Gallagher says he also sees need for a well-structured campaign to sell Coloradans on the need for kicked-up taxes to pay for transportation, not just for the I-70 corridor.

“It comes down to redefining “we,” Gallagher says.

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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