Study: more carpooling from Denver to Vail, other mountain resorts
EAGLE COUNTY — There’s good news in a study of weekend travel patterns on Interstate 70 from the Denver area to mountain resorts. There’s worrying news, too.
The I-70 Coalition — a nonprofit group of governments and business interests along the three-county mountain corridor — commissioned a study of highway users in February and March of this year.
The study firm, Boulder-based RRC Associates, surveyed highway users at the “dinosaur” park-and-ride parking lots on the west end of the Denver metropolitan area. The study — a continuation of similar research done in 2012 and 2014 — showed efforts to cut congestion are paying some dividends.
More people are carpooling driving to the mountains. Reasons given include saving money on gas and social benefits, but nearly half of respondents said they were carpooling for environmental reasons and to ease traffic congestion.
Nearly two-thirds of those taking the surveys said they use traffic information sources about the highway. About half the use the Colorado Department of Transportation’s web or mobile information sources.
A growing number of travelers also said they planned to return later to the metro parking lots. It’s still a relatively small number — 21 percent — but that’s nearly double the number of later-travelers surveyed in 2014.
While the state is urging travelers to use the peak-period toll lanes in Clear Creek County, only about one-third of drivers reported using those lanes.
That’s good, not great, news, but I-70 Coalition Executive Director Margaret Bowes said even some good news is encouraging.
Years of work
Bowes said the Coalition has been working in earnest since 2009 to try to ease congestion on the corridor. But, she added, there’s only so much the relatively small nonprofit group is able to accomplish.
Bigger steps require a bigger partner — in this case, the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Bowes said the state agency has been more actively engaged in highway-safety and congestion-reduction efforts for the past few years. The turning point may have been an early-2013 event called alternately the “perfect storm” or “snowpocalypse.” That storm brought a blizzard and heavy snow to the region on a Sunday afternoon.
That day, the corridor’s ability to carry traffic essentially collapsed, with some drivers reporting a 10-hour drive from Edwards to Denver.
“It wasn’t just an inconvenience, it became a safety issue,” Bowes said. “It also led to action.”
In response to that storm, state officials beefed up winter manpower along the corridor. There’s also now a winter operations plan that includes monitoring the corridor from a command center at the Eisenhower Johnson Tunnels.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Bowes said. “But we need to move the needle even more.”
The mountain region’s economy may depend on it, because of the sobering news in the survey: Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said they’ve cut back on visits to mountain resorts due to traffic congestion.
“The fact that seven out of 10 Front Range visitors indicate that traffic on the corridor impacts their visitation should keep this issue in front of mind for all of us,” Vail Valley Partnership President Chris Romer wrote in an email. “This report reinforces the need for a comprehensive statewide transportation plan and funding.”
More stable funding?
Bowes agreed, saying that positive steps taken so far could be made more effective with more funding for transportation.
That effort seemed poised for a setback Tuesday.
The Colorado House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would have asked voters to raise the state’s sales tax by about .5 percent, generating roughly $75 million per year, enough to pay for bonds that would finance maintenance and construction projects around the state.
State Sen. Kerry Donovan in a Tuesday text message wrote that the bill appeared headed toward defeat in a Colorado Senate committee hearing.
But, Bowes said, state voters may still see a sales tax increase proposal on this fall’s ballot. Bowes said citizen groups are ready to petition an initiative onto the ballot this year if the Colorado Legislature fails to act.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.
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