State will enforce tire rules this winter |

State will enforce tire rules this winter

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Denver media outlets last week jumped on an internet story that ranked Interstate 70 in the mountains as one of the worst highways in the U.S.

Your first hint as to the amount of careful research that went into the piece starts with the title, “The Worst Damn Freeways in America.”

Your second hint is the story’s “worst aspect” of I-70 travel: “The complete and utter randomness of winter traffic makes planning impossible.”

Sheesh. Anyone who’s lived in Colorado for more than about 45 minutes knows that weekend travel on I-70 is all about timing and planning. So here’s your Chevy Suburban-sized grain of salt.

EAGLE COUNTY — Weather always changes along Interstate 70. What’s constant is weekend congestion in the summer and winter. A couple of new steps this coming winter hope to at least ease that heavy traffic.

The same week that an obscure website survey ranked I-70 through the mountains among the nation’s worst highways, the Colorado Department of Transportation released information about a new initiative intended to improve equipment on mountain-bound passenger vehicles.

The department announced it would enforce the state’s “vehicle traction and chain laws.” Here’s what that means:

Codes 15 and 16

“In the past, when the average driver saw (notices about) the chain law, they thought it only applied to trucks. With the new campaign, people will know it applies to them, too.”Margaret BowesDirector, I-70 Coalition

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During severe winter storms, the department will announce the application of the traction law — Code 15 in department-speak. What that means is that drivers of passenger vehicles must have either full-blown snow tires, tires with a mud/snow designation or have four-wheel drive. All tires must have at least one-eighth inch of tread.

During severe storms, the department will call a Code 16, which requires every vehicle on the highway to have either tire chains or a device such an Auto Sock.

Hefty Fines

When state officials make those calls about the highway, motorists can be fined $130 or more for not having proper equipment. Those fines jump to $650 or more if they block the roadway. Much like the state’s seat-belt laws, motorists can only be ticketed for inadequate equipment if they’re pulled over for another reason — such as sliding off the highway or blocking traffic.

In an email, department spokeswoman Amy Ford wrote that Colorado State Patrol officers won’t pull over motorists to check their tires.

The fact that officers won’t be conducting tire checks on snow days means that educating motorists about the need for decent equipment will be key to helping ease winter accidents and traffic jams — every minute a lane is closed requires about five minutes to clear traffic.

“What will make people pay attention is that they’re going to hear so much about it,” said Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit organization made up of governments and businesses in the corridor. “In the past, when the average driver saw (notices about) the chain law, they thought it only applied to trucks. With the new campaign, people will know it applies to them, too.”

That effort might get easier if a proposed law makes it through the 2016 session of the Colorado Legislature.

A law proposed by Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, and Diane Mitsch Bush, a Steamboat Springs Democrat who represents Eagle and Routt counties, would require motorists to have adequate tires during any snowstorm. That means state officials wouldn’t have to declare a specific code to fine motorists who don’t have adequate tires or other equipment.

Express Lane

Besides the new emphasis on enforcement of existing laws, the state this winter is also rolling out a new express lane for eastbound traffic. That lane is along existing shoulders of the highway, will be used only on high-traffic days and motorists will pay a sliding toll rate to use the lane. Tolls start at $3 and will be adjusted based on demand.

“This is the first time in the nation something like this has been tried,” Bowes said. “It will be interesting to see where the (demand-based) price points fall.”

But, Bowes said, she expects the new lane to cut travel times, both for those willing to pay and motorists in the free lanes.

Given budget constraints and the staggering price of improvements along the mountain corridor, congestion relief on I-70 requires a number of different programs.

One of those is Change Your Peak Drive Time. That effort was launched by the I-70 Coalition in 2009, and the department of transportation added its public-awareness muscle to the idea a couple of years later.

Stay a little Longer

That program hopes to entice visitors to stay a little later in the mountains with various dining and other deals, keeping at least some cars off the interstate during peak go-home periods.

“We saw peak traffic levels flatten out almost immediately,” Bowes said.

Besides discount dining, some area lodges, including The Antlers at Vail, offer late check-out to guests leaving on Sundays. That has been more popular by far than discounts for those who want to stay Sunday night and leave Monday morning.

“That’s a great program,” Vail Valley Partnership CEO Chris Romer said. “It’s what the consumer wants — they don’t want to, or can’t come mid-week, or leave on Monday.”

As time goes on and I-70 sees only incremental improvements — a train simply isn’t in the cards — Romer said he’s optimistic that go-home day might become a bit easier for guests.

“The impact (of the programs) is a matter of scale,” Romer said. “It won’t solve the problem, but it moves everyone in the right direction.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, and @scottnmiller.

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