Re-designing the trip to the mountains
VAIL – As Colorado looks toward the future of I-70, its major east-west artery, the central question is whether it’s time for a major shift in thinking about transportation.The Colorado Department of Transportation sees primarily wider highways between Denver and Eagle County, particularly through Clear Creek County, as the answer to growing congestion of I-70.Of the nine concepts in a recently released document envisioning the highway’s future, three tout highway expansion as the only answer and three more see more lanes as the partial or dominant answer. These plans involve boring new tunnels through the Continental Divide and at the foot of Floyd Hill. Estimated costs for the highway-only alternatives range from $2.4 billion to $2.65 billion.Pointedly, none of the proposals endorse a futuristic monorail. Cost of conventional rail is estimated at $5 billion and a monorail at $6 billion. Although a federal study completed by engineers last year lends support to backers of a monorail, the department of transportation’s executive director, Tom Norton, dismisses it as “unproven technology.” Dave Nicol, division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, put it somewhat differently. “If we don’t have the funds to build a project, it’s not a practical project,” Nicol said. “If it’s not technically feasible, then it’s not a practical project.”Although the door remains open to alternatives – including doing nothing but saving space for a mass-transit device of the future – Norton has clearly indicated his agency sees tried-and-true technology as the answer for I-70 for several decades to come.Who’s obstructing? The department of transportation’s primary concession to mass transit is a 14-foot-wide corridor for rail-guided buses in the median from Golden to Silverthorne. It’s a low-risk gamble. If the buses don’t get riders, the space can always revert back to use for cars.But opponents have dogged department of transportation from the start. They say the agency’s planners have tilted the debate in favor highway expansion and blocked futuristic mass transit.”We are not obstructionists and you are not bad people,” monorail advocate Ed Rapp, a retired Colorado School of Mines professor, told transportation officials at a recent meeting. “The difference between us is institutional culture.”He and other critics from Denver to Eagle say the department of transportation should, instead of basing their ideas on a 20-year timeline, evaluate changes within a 50-year context. If it did so, they say, expensive rail-based mass transit alternatives could more easily be amortized.Critics are even more broadly questioning why the department of transportation set a $4 billion lid on the project. While the agency has identified only $1.6 billion in guaranteed funding during the next 20 years, Norton said his agency believes the state can “scrape up” the additional money. But why not more?Some critics allege a conspiracy – an arbitrary figure would accommodate highway widening while filtering out more expensive mass-transit options.Remember roundabouts?
Mass transit advocates say a more expensive up-front investment would ultimately be more economical. As demand grows, more rail or monorail cars could be added. In contrast, once new highway lanes become crowded, the only answer is more highway lanes. Indeed, the department of transportation’s analysis projects that a monorail-type system would satisfy demand to at least 2065, longer than the highway-widening alternative.”The highway will be obsolete when it is completed,” said Kevin O’Malley, a Clear Creek County commissioner. He also charges that accommodating more cars only increases air and water pollution.Ken Neubecker, a Trout Unlimited representative on the Western Slope, charges the department of transportation’s vision is purely reactionary. “They are being dragged around by the problem, rather than trying to do something that will redirect and redefine the problem in a more manageable fashion,” said Neubecker, who lives in Eagle. Neubecker said buses, which would cost an estimated $3.2 billion to $3.6 billion, are laughably inept and the concept can be easily discarded. “They want to spread asphalt, they couldn’t care less about buses,” he says. If out-of-the-box thinking is required, what comes to mind? Somewhat ironically, Neubecker points to Vail’s roundabouts. For years Vail had groped for a solution to the increasingly congested four-way stop at its main entrance from I-70. One memorable Christmas week traffic backed up for several miles. Town residents talked about stop lights, but ultimately resisted them as too symbolic of urbanization. Even more important, studies showed they would have only slightly reduced congestion.Finally, in 1994, the Town Council pulled the trigger on an expensive and – in the United States – largely unprecedented idea. Opponents predicted mayhem, but within two or three weeks, the experiment was publicly acclaimed a success. Now, roundabouts are found across Colorado and beyond.”The problem wasn’t that were too many cars,” Neubecker said. “The problem was that they were being moved about inefficiently.”Rail revoltBut gambles in unprecedented design and technology have also failed. Denver International Airport’s baggage-handling system delayed the airport’s opening for months, and it never has worked as well had been predicted.But some people worry that a monorail could work only too well, making the mountain valleys too accessible to both commuters and visitors – a grim prospect to those who think the mountains have already become too crowded.Conversely, to pay operating costs, a monorail-type system would need that added density, a point observed by Norton during a 2003 meeting in Silverthorne. The I-70 corridor communities probably would not gain urban-like densities for another 30 years, he predicted.And both business and environmental leaders discount a do-nothing approach.
“I think about half our business comes form the Front Range, and I would guess that no one in this community wants that business to go away,” said Vail Mayor Rid Slifer, a resident since 1961. Trout Unlimited’s Neubecker, who has lived in Eagle since the early 1980s, similarly agrees that both mountain valleys and the Front Range urban corridor will grow rapidly in population. This is an opportunity, he adds, to provide a real long-term vision instead of a Band-Aid solution.”We need a paradigm shift,” added Bert Melcher, a Sierra Club representative from Denver.But opposition to the monorail and support for the department of transportation is also coming from somewhat surprising quarters. The Colorado Rail Passengers Association argues that the monorail technology is too uncertain to justify the enormous cost. Moreover, a rail-based solution would work better along the Front Range corridor, said the group’s president, Jon Esty.The Front Range, where 82 percent of Colorado’s population lives, has 1.1 to 1.2 riders per vehicle. Traffic congestion occurs at least five days a week. Riders, many of them commuters or students, could be accommodated relatively easily by rail transportation.In contrast, cars on the I-70 corridor carry an average of 2.3 people. If growing, congestion remains confined to summer and winter weekends. And finally, instead of books and satchels, travelers are burdened with ski equipment and other recreational gear not as easily accommodated in mass transit.”I feel badly for the people of Clear Creek County, who are basically pinned in their homes on weekends and unable to go anywhere because of the traffic on I-70,” Esty said. “I’m just not supporting the monorail as the solution.”On the other hand, the department of transportation’s rail-guided buses would, upon arrival in Summit County, allow the buses to continue on to individual destinations at resorts, eliminating the need for additional connections.Construction zonesMonorail advocates have one final argument. Highway widening over the course of 15 years will create a traffic nightmare, whereas monorail proponents have estimated they could get their project built in five years.Monorail backers have no precedent for their optimistic projections, but the department of transportation can point to the $1.67 billion T-REX project in Denver’s southeast corridor. Three years into the five-year project, in which light rail and two to four lanes are being added on I-25, delays have so been far less than was feared.”If we can do 250,000 cars a day and maintain a traffic flow through a construction zone like that, we can do it on I-70, whether it’s in Clear Creek County, Summit or Eagle County,” Norton said. “It won’t be easy, but we can do it.”Norton also believes that T-REX also serves as precedent for I-70 in showing that the department of transportation is not a highways-only agency, but also can accommodate rail, he said. “It’s not one for the other,” Norton said. “It’s how do we best use both to accomplish our purpose?”
Still, this tip-of-hat to mass transit reflects a fundamental retreat in attitudes from even several years ago. In 1996, Norton’s predecessor, Guillermo “Bill” Vidal, told ski industry executives that the mountains were too fragile to accommodate widening of I-70. Alternative solutions would have to be found, he said. So far, the department of transportation hasn’t found much.Vail, Colorado
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