Snow, fire, rocks — Interstate 70 closes every 2.4 days west of Denver
November 18, 2016
Gregg Rippy spent three hours in a Copper Mountain parking lot last month waiting for Interstate 70 to reopen during a snowstorm. It was one of the Glenwood Springs civic leader's longest delays in years among his frequent trips to Denver.
Through the winter, Carbondale's Bob and Joyce Rankin, state lawmaker and State Board of Education member, respectively, decided against coming home from Denver some weekends "because we didn't want to have to sit," Joyce said.
Traversing mountain passes on I-70 is a quintessential Colorado experience for business and play — and, as these longtime Roaring Fork Valley residents know, can be a crapshoot.
This is especially true for people driving on the Western Slope, which accounted for 69 percent of I-70 closures between Denver and the Utah border during the last four years, according to a Post Independent analysis of data from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Where Rippy was stopped is in the bull's-eye — I-70 was closed 280 times in one direction or the other between Vail and the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel from Jan. 1, 2012, through the end of 2015. During the four years, that was 47 percent of the closures, which happened an average of every 2.4 days.
To reduce closures, CDOT is employing new technology to monitor weather and road conditions in real time, enabling it to deploy snow removal equipment and order precautionary closures when weather turns bad quickly.
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Among the findings of the PI data analysis:
• Nearly 600 incidents closed I-70 in at least one direction for a total of 1,076 hours and 32 minutes. Nearly 12 percent of that time, 125 hours, the freeway was closed completely.
• Unsurprisingly, Vail Pass was the No. 1 location, with 91 incidents accounting for 123 hours closed.
• Glenwood Canyon was next, with 43 incidents and 92 and a half hours of closure. Glenwood Springs was listed as the closure location for an additional 10 incidents totaling 22.5 hours, which was 10th on the list.
• Rounding out the top five closure locations were the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel, 68 closures and 92 hours, 7 minutes; Silverthorne, 43 and 87 hours, 25 minutes; and the Vail area, with 48 closures lasting a total of 86 hours.
• Georgetown was the top Eastern Slope spot, coming in sixth with 28 incidents and a total of 41 hours, 15 minutes closed.
• The stretch of I-70 from the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel to Denver accounted for 22 percent of the closure time, while the tunnel itself was listed as the closure location for 11 percent of the incidents and 8.4 percent of the hours closed.
• The longest stretch without a closure over the four years was 25 days, from Aug. 1-26, 2014. Then the road had closures five of the next six days.
• I-70 experienced closures each of the 48 months examined.
• The longest shutdown was nearly 13 hours at Palisade because of a wildfire in June 2012.
• That closure was before Glenwood Canyon was closed for almost a week in February, but rockslides and rockfall mitigation accounted for surprisingly little of the closure time, 38 incidents totaling 48 hours and 30 minutes for 2012-15.
• Vehicle fires accounted for 29 closures totaling 35 hours and 21 minutes.
• Floyd Hill eastbound is a hazardous spot at about 8:30 on January mornings. Sun glare caused an accident that closed I-70's eastbound lanes in January 2015, and as a precaution for 48 minutes in January 2014.
• Livestock got on the freeway at the Lookout Mountain exit last November, closing the eastbound lanes for half an hour.
LENGTH OF CLOSURES
The median closure time was 1 hour, 6 minutes. While clearing a closure in Glenwood Canyon takes longer, with a median time of slightly more than 90 minutes — Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel closures are cleared in 50 minutes, the numbers show.
Clearing closures in an hour is not good enough in CDOT's view.
"Given some of the conditions, that's not bad, but we're totally unsatisfied with that as an agency," said Ryan Rice, CDOT director of transportation systems management and operations. "Our goal is to keep the road open."
That task, he said, "is like trying to conduct a ballet, orchestra and football team at the same time."
The Eisenhower Tunnel, Rice said, "is the linchpin of the corridor."
It holds one of three CDOT command centers on I-70 west of Denver, with the others being above the Hanging Lake Tunnels and the third in Golden.
Increasingly, CDOT is leveraging technology to monitor road conditions in real time.
This spring, for example, the agency is adding 30 friction sensors to the 15 that were in place over the winter. These sensors assess the grit of the roadway, allowing the agency to send equipment or take other steps when the surface is becoming slick.
In addition, Colorado is the first spot in the United States to test what Rice termed automated crowdsourcing of road conditions.
Through a partnership with Here, a company co-owned by German automakers Audi, BMW and Daimler, CDOT is leveraging smartphone technology to improve safety. It has put sensors on 200 vehicles — some in its fleet and some others that frequently travel I-70's mountain corridor.
Cars equipped with these sensors, according to a CDOT website, detect traffic incidents and road conditions and sends data via cellular networks to the Here Location Cloud, which validates the information. "The results can then distributed to nearby vehicles, warning drivers immediately," the CDOT site says. "Simultaneously, the results can be sent to a traffic management center, which can react to upcoming situations in real time."
The stakes are high. Closures cost money for commerce and in delaying or discouraging people from visiting mountain resorts, but more importantly, 70 people died in I-70 crashes between Denver and Utah in the past four years, according the CDOT figures.
In that time, "things have changed a lot" for the better, said Stan Zemler, Vail's city manager who also is part of the I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit organization representing 28 local governments and businesses along the mountain corridor.
He credited immediate past CDOT chief Don Hunt with improving the agency's operating plan, "putting massive tow trucks on Vail Pass," and moving other heavy equipment and making a financial commitment to the Western Slope.
CDOT has improved its internet and text updates and management of electronic message boards warning people about trouble spots ahead, he said. He also noted that truckers can stop at the large parking area created at Dotsero, and chain stations around Vail have been improved.
That's important, Rice noted, because 40 to 60 percent of closure time involves commercial vehicles. The 2012-15 data specified 60 incidents, from rollovers and jackknifes, involving semi rigs, but other accidents likely involved trucks that weren't noted in the report prepared for the PI.
The frequency of incidents involving trucks, coupled with the difficult terrain, likely explains the preponderance of closures on the west side of the Continental Divide compared with the east side.
"The Western Slope is more of a challenge," Rice said, "because of weather, terrain and configuration of the road." An accident that might not lead to a closure on another part of the road might require it on a steep, curvy stretch west of the divide to avoid a secondary crash, Rice said.
Rippy and Bob Rankin, among others, believe a big part of the problem is cavalier drivers.
"People were more prepared when it was two lanes," said Rippy, a former state legislator and current member of the Statewide Internet Portal Authority. "Now, the expectation is we have an interstate, so people think we should just be able to go."
Rankin, who serves in the Colorado House of Representatives, has tried two years in a row to require drivers to carry traction equipment or be running on snow tires, but has been blocked in the Senate.
"Closures are not always predictable, and people head up the mountains and are not prepared," he said.
Veteran Carbondale trucker Keith Olson agrees.
"These guys come into Colorado and don't know how to chain up a truck," he said.
He wishes CDOT would be more proactive, though he agrees with Zemler that management has improved in the past couple of years, particularly near the Eisenhower Tunnel.
"We've known for years where the trouble spots are," Olson said — the eastbound approach to Vail Pass Summit is the worst in his view — but "the snow starts coming, then the mess, then the deep snow, then CDOT shows up."
Zemler, though, said closures are inevitable — "sometimes at Vail Pass, the weather is extreme," he said.
Added Rice, at the high elevations, "in 5 to 20 minutes, conditions can really go south."
Which makes it hard to go east and west across Colorado.