Planning, express lane help highway congestion
EAGLE COUNTY — A massive snowstorm in early 2013 was the breaking point along Interstate 70.
People who were working along the highway then remember where they were that weekend, when drivers battling weather and traffic needed eight or 10 hours to get from Eagle County to the Denver area.
“That was the turning point,” I-70 Coalition Director Margaret Bowes said.
The coalition represents town and county governments as well as business interests along the I-70 corridor from roughly Idaho Springs to Eagle. That group works in cooperation with Colorado Department of Transportation to try to ease weekend congestion on that part of the highway.
Bowes said that 2013 snowstorm let to the state department’s creation of a winter operations plan.
“That was a game changer in how the corridor is managed,” Bowes said.
That plan added more equipment, more manpower and improved communications when dealing with winter storms.
This winter so far hasn’t seen too many problems along the interstate. The biggest factor is weather and its timing, but Colorado Department of Transportation communications specialist Tracy Trulove said the departments plans and tactics seem to be working well, too.
“We’re getting better every year,” Trulove said.
This year, the department has refined how it uses “safety closures” along I-70. Those short-term closures — anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes — give the department a chance to get plows and de-icer on Vail Pass, or on the approaches to the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels before traffic makes a sketchy situation more dangerous.
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said those safety closures have worked well so far.
“We can get the road open more quickly than when it’s closed for accidents,” Henninger said.
When to close the highway, or when to declare the state’s traction law is in effect, is the job of a trio of people who watch the highway during storms or when traffic is heavy.
Patrick Chavez is the relatively new corridor manager, who works with a pair of incident commanders, one based on either side of the tunnels.
Those people can move police officers or snowplows around the corridor as needed, Trulove said.
“If we have something impacting Vail Pass more than Straight Creek (the highway east of the tunnels), we can move plows where they’re needed,” Trulove said.
If there is a crash, or a vehicle slides off the road, Trulove said the incident commanders can be at those scenes quickly to help clear the highway to keep traffic moving.
“We’ve been learning and growing,” Trulove said. “We’re learning how to use our resources efficiently. Having a corridor manager in place has really helped.”
Bowes said other efforts have helped, too.
More people are using transit, Bowes said. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s Bustang bus service between Glenwood Springs and Denver has been popular. And, while the service is primarily geared toward getting people from the mountains to the city, Bowes said a growing number of people are riding the bus from the Denver area to the mountains on a Fridays evening, skiing for a day or two, then heading back on Sunday or Monday morning.
There have also been improvements in trucker chain-up areas. An area on eastbound I-70 in East Vail won’t be completely finished until the summer of 2017, but Bowes said improvements have significantly helped safety.
The transportation department has also contracted with a private company to manage those chain-up stations, Bowes said.
“It’s a company that’s literally directing traffic to get truckers in and off the road,” Bowes said, adding there are some places on the highway where truckers have pulled off on the pass that are hazardous to both truck drivers and other motorists.
When traffic isn’t hamstrung by the weather, a toll lane through Clear Creek County is also having a positive effect.
Like many mountain residents, Bowes does her best to stay off I-70 during peak go-home periods on Sundays. But, she said, she had to head east for a wedding on a recent Sunday, and she used the lane.
“We jumped in the lane and it was great,” Bowes said, adding that the toll for the 13-mile trip was $5.
According to transportation department data, traffic speed has increased during peak periods.
Average speeds were less than 30 mph from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend in 2012. The same period this year showed “free-flow” speeds the entire day.
On Labor Day 2012, speeds ranged from 5 mph to 20 mph from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. This year, average traffic speed was at least 30 to 40 mph.
Transportation officials will need to keep improving plans for both winter weather and heavy traffic. Colorado’s population is growing by an estimated 10,000 people per month, with most of those people moving to the Front Range. Those newcomers will come to the mountains on a highway that won’t see wholesale improvements any time soon.
But, Trulove said, the success of the eastbound toll lane has resulted in some advance planning for a westbound toll lane, too, but when that will happen remains an unanswered question.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com or @scottnmiller.
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