State agrees to fund rising underpass costs
By the numbers
$21 million: Original cost estimate for a new Interstate 70 underpass in Vail.
$30.1 million: Current cost estimate for the project.
$8.73 million: Vail’s share of the project cost.
$2.73 million: Increase in the town’s share over the original estimate.
VAIL — An underpass project to link Vail’s north and south frontage roads cleared perhaps its most important hurdle Thursday, when the Colorado Transportation Commission unanimously agreed to provide another $6.57 million in funding for the project.
That additional money was pulled from contingency funds for the state’s Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships program for funding new projects. That money, as well as an additional $2.73 million the Vail Town Council appropriated in May, will bring funding for the project up to $30.1 million. That’s a long way from the original estimate of $21 million.
That estimate went up in smoke in December 2014, when state officials revised their estimates for all the construction projects for the RAMP program. Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford said the transportation commission has funded all the projects approved in 2013 from the contingency account.
THE BIGGEST HURDLE
Tom Kassmel, the Vail town engineer who’s been shepherding the project since it was first announced in 2013, said the funding question has been perhaps the biggest hurdle to clear. Even after the Town Council approved additional money, the transportation commission had to provide the final, and biggest, piece of the funding puzzle.
The additional funding means that it’s likely Vail will get a project that’s been discussed since the 1980s. The project has always been too expensive for the town to handle alone, and state funding for years was mostly wishful thinking. The project almost made the list in a transportation project funding bill in the 1990s, but it was finally approved in 2013, with the state agreeing to pay 71 percent of the cost and the town picking up the remainder.
The project will make it easier to get across Interstate 70 between the main and West Vail Interstate 70 interchanges. State officials say the project will extend the useful life of the town’s roundabouts. Town officials say the project will provide more efficient routes for buses and quicker response times for police, fire and ambulance calls.
DESIGNING THE UNDERPASS
Even without the funding questions, it’s taken a lot of work to get the project about 95 percent designed. Town officials and project neighbors had to agree to a design. There was also a vote by project neighbors to turn down a noise wall that could have added an additional $5 million to the project’s price tag.
Kassmel said that while the project is mostly designed, there’s still a good bit of work to do. In addition, the project will require the purchase of some private land for additional right of way.
Still, Kassmel said, he’s reasonably confident that the current estimate will hold up through the remainder of the design and construction project. The town and state have been working for more than a year with Kraemer North America, the construction company that did the work on the Twin Tunnels project on I-70 just east of Idaho Springs.
Ford said Kraemer brought that two-year project in on time and slightly under budget, adding that the manager of that project is now consulting on Vail’s underpass project.
Kraemer may end up doing the job in Vail. Kassmel said since Kraemer has been part of the design team, the company will have the first opportunity to provide an estimate for the work. If the town, state and construction company can’t come to an agreement, the job will be put out to bid, Kassmel said.
That work will probably begin in April 2016 and will take about two years to complete.
Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said the project will be “challenging,” especially in its first six months. On the other hand, Zemler said, Vail is no stranger to big projects and has plenty of experience in smoothly handling problems that come along.
“You don’t spend $30 million on a project and not make an impact,” Kassmel said.
Vail Town Council member Greg Moffet was the only member of that board to vote against putting the additional money into the underpass project, saying the town should use the money for more important matters, especially housing.
Moffet said he remains ambivalent about the project’s value. He said he believes the estimates of future traffic growth overstate future problems.
“The flip side of that, though, is that if I’m wrong, we’ll never have this much help again,” Moffet said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.