Past key to I-70’s future, local officials say |

Past key to I-70’s future, local officials say

Allen Best
A truck on westbound I-70 under the overpass at Frisco's east exit. The right lane, traveling west, had been treated with mag chloride early Friday morning, but the left lane had not been.

As a vision of the future Interstate 70 emerges, disgruntled officials from the mountain valleys sometimes talk about Glenwood Canyon.

There, in the last segment of I-70, engineers had proposed a relatively simple proposition of brute force overpowering one of the state’s most spectacular canyons. Strong opposition had developed by the early 1970s, attracting even John Denver to throw rocks across the river in a symbolic gesture. Even after construction began in 1980, many doubts remain.

Yet the segment completed in 1993 has defied most expectations, if admittedly at an extremely high cost paid mostly by the federal government. If ever human engineering can truly complement that of nature, this is among the candidates. At least one list places it among the top 10 engineering marvels in Colorado history.

The lesson, say Vail activist Tom Steinberg and Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom, is that opposition resulted in a better project. Now, the state bureaucracy must similarly be pushed to reach higher off the shelf in planning a new, improved I-70. Only this time, instead of 12 miles through Glenwood Canyon, the dispute is the 150-plus miles between Denver International Airport and Eagle County Regional Airport.

Lindstrom has lambasted state transportation planners and indeed, the entire four-year planning effort.

“This is a joke,” he says, calling it a “California solution to a Colorado problem.” Eagle County representatives, although not nearly as derisive, are also questioning the results.

Extending what now exists

This current process does not alone determine what will get done, but it could very well define what is not done, which is why advocates of a monorail are so alarmed. Lindstrom and others envision a monorail of some sort extending from DIA to Eagle County Regional Airport. State planners haven’t entirely dismissed the idea, although they do not see enough riders to justify extending a mass transit system beyond Vail. In fact, according to their studies, the core link is between Denver and Silverthorne.

Instead of a vision of a sleek, futuristic transportation system, the vision that has emerged in a series of workshops conducted in recent weeks by state planners and their consultants is largely an extension of what now exists. I-70 would be widened to three lanes from Floyd Hill to the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel. Several tunnels would be bored, too, near Idaho Springs, at the Continental divide and through Dowd Butte, immediately west of Vail.

Buses powered by electricity will glide in dedicated lanes between DIA and Silverthorne, leaving the rails to become conventional diesel-fueled buses, similar to the existing ECO buses.

Also still on the table are various other ideas, including reversible high-occupancy lanes.

Lindstrom’s solution? He still can’t say. He concedes more highway widening near Idaho Springs, but he rejects the rubber-tired buses as an old idea ill-suited to tomorrow’s problems. Greyhound already runs buses, and it’s just $19 from Summit County to Denver, he points out. There are few takers.

If the answer isn’t a monorail, an idea brimming with question marks, he wants the space dedicated now, for use once the technology hits store shelves.

“Soles to the fire’

Like Lindstrom, Vail’s Steinberg insists that I-70 communities must continue to “hold their soles to the fire” in order to get a better solution.

“I’m feeling more optimistic than I did at the beginning of the whole process,” says Steinberg, who represents the Colorado Water Quality and Quantity Control Commission.

He credits the planning efforts for acknowledging noise, sanding and wildlife problems caused by the existing I-70.

Still, Steinberg says he believes the plan now being entertained would be intolerably destructive of Clear Creek. He just doesn’t see enough room in the corridor between Eisenhower Tunnel and Floyd Hill for six lanes of highway and a set of rails for buses. Mountainsides would have to be further hacked down

“I don’t know what we’ll end up with, but it must be better than some of the alternatives we’re looking at,” he says.

Economic realities

CDOT planners insist, however, that any transportation plans must be tethered to economic realities.

“At some point Colorado has to be able to afford whatever we put forward,” said Cecilia Joy, regional planning and environmental manager.

State officials estimate the cost of a monorail-like automated guideway system between the C-470 intersection near Morrison and Vail is estimated at $4.7 billion.

Current planning does anticipate minimal federal help. When I-70 was originally built, the federal government picked up 90 percent of the cost. Now, federal money typically accounts for only 40 percent of highway costs in Colorado. That’s a significant change in just the last 10 years, since the finishing touches were put on Glenwood Canyon. With three tunnels, four full-service rest areas and 40 bridges and viaducts, Glenwood Canyon cost $500,000 million, which at the time of completion was the most expensive segment of interstate highway ever built.

By comparison, T-REX, the massive project in southeast Denver, is costing $1.67 billion. Of that, $879 million is a light-rail system, of which the federal government is paying 60 percent.

The nothing option

There is, of course, yet another option – to do nothing. For residents of mountain communities who want to see slower growth, that might indeed be best, said Steinberg. But he argues that it’s impractical. Too many people and businesses want growth, and ultimately that growth is fueled by global population growth. Doing nothing, he says, is no option.

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