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The case for a tunnel

Jim Lamont

The following is the third installment of the Vail Village Homeowners Association white paper: ” Eliminating I-70, a Grand Vision Plan for Vail.” The full report can be obtained on the association’s Web site http://www.vailhomeowners.comDesirability, Environment, and Property Values Affected: Vail is the largest resort community of its kind in the world bisected by an interstate highway. It can be predicted that as adverse impacts from the interstate worsen a decline in desirability and property values of the community’s affected areas will inevitably follow. Its edge will be lessened in its competition with other resorts. The options available, which propose a continued cohabitation with the interstate, are bleak and at best short-lived when measured against a predictable decline in the community’s quality of life and economic value. There is no commitment required of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) or federal highway authorities to ensure the continued success of Vail’s quality of life, economy, or the health of its natural environment. The community must fight skillfully and hard to protect its own interests. Road sand, used to improve vehicle traction on Vail Pass during the winter months, has migrated into nearby Black Gore Creek, a tributary of Gore Creek. The headwaters of Gore Creek are where a significant portion of Vail’s water supply is collected. Hundreds of thousand of tons of sand are migrating down Black Gore, smothering the native aquatic water life in its path. Efforts have been under way for nearly a decade to stem the flow and remove the sand sludge. Drifts of sand, several feet thick, flow from the interstate storm drain outlets hundreds of feet downhill before spilling into Black Gore Creek. CDOT has been tied financially to its response to clean up and stem the pollution. The U.S. Forest Service controls the federal public land on which the pollution is occurring. The Forest Service continues to push the federal and state transportation authorities to accelerate the cleanup. Some water-quality activists involved with the politics of the issue believe that without congressional intervention, transportation authorities will apply less than their full effort to the cleanup and prevention plan because the polluted areas are located outside of the CDOT transportation corridor. Vail’s challenges are in many respects shared by all communities confronted with the proposed expansion of I-70. There is a common thread among these communities’ vigorous objection to the negative consequences being proposed. For the most part, the plan put forth by CDOT is criticized as inappropriate because of the plan’s dependence upon out-dated technology and solutions. There is much to be gained by Vail seeking qualitative solutions both for itself and its neighbors along the I-70 mountain corridor. Vail Daily Letter to the Editor About I-70 Noise and Design Issues, Nov. 19, 2005: I can certainly understand the frustrations that Mr. Lamont and the Vail Town Council are experiencing. The solutions that Mr. Lamont contemplates are similar to the “context sensitive solutions” that the Clear Creek County I-70 Task Force and Clear Creek county elected officials have been interested in for nearly two decades.It is a shame that our Colorado Department of Transportation refuses to engage in “outside the box” thinking. We continue to hear that anything other than “wider and blacker” is unaffordable. And as for noise, we’ll just have to live with it – there is insufficient funding to implement solutions.CDOT has some of the best engineers in the world – look at Glenwood Canyon. There needs to be a Colorado commitment to excellence in design, livable communities, and a willingness to fund them. Indiscriminate highway building (and all the accompanying impacts to our environment and our communities) will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.Jo Ann SorensenClear Creek County I-70 Task ForceLong-range Planning Concepts: The association recognizes that any remedial solutions to noise pollution through Vail may well prove over the long-term to be inadequate. The level of responsiveness to water- and noise-pollution issues outside the transportation corridor are indicative of attitudes from transportation authorities towards local concerns. The longer these problems remains unresolved, the faster property values will decline, reinvestment in property will be discouraged, and the local population will become resigned to the mediocrity that accompanies deterioration. Consequently, the association and the community must now give serious consideration to solutions that permanently remove interstate 70 from the community. The association embarked on an effort to investigate strategies and methods to accomplish the removal or burial of I-70. The purpose of the investigations is to determine if the community and the town of Vail to plan should begin a coordinated approach to the planned expansion of interstate 70, so that its negative influences are eliminated once the expansion is completed.Two concepts, with variations, are being studied. The first would propose relocating I-70 via a “bypass tunnel” under Vail Mountain. The second proposal would include burying the interstate in concrete structures, within the existing right-of-way through Vail, using a construction technique known as “cut & cover.” Each of these approaches is extraordinarily costly and complex in scope. They are well beyond the ability or willingness of any single governmental agency to fund. Consequently, each approach must be evaluated within financial parameters that assume they are fully or significantly financed through the private sector. Financing the bypass tunnel, in theory, could be accomplished by selling development rights generated from the sale of the interstate right-of-way to private developers. The cut & cover method would be financed through the sale of “air rights” to developers. The cut & cover concept reconstructs the interstate in its existing right-of-way, covering it with a concrete lid on which private developments are constructed. In other words, there could be development of several different kinds on top of the buried interstate. Vail has had a stressful relationship with interstate 70 from the founding of the community in the early 1960s. The prospect of the 1976 Winter Olympics and in the design process for the Vail Pass segment of the interstate, varying forms of both the tunnel and cut & cover concepts were given passing consideration. Urban planners and developers have raised the cut & cover issue over the years. A serious proposal by a reputable developer was made in the early 1990s. Each in their turn was rejected because of various impediments, the most overwhelming being financial or regulatory. Federal authorities have adopted policies that provide for the long term-leasing development air rights. The United States has seen neither concept gained a strong foothold. Seattle and Phoenix have examples of cut & cover built over interstate highways in their central business districts. Boston is a notorious example of uncontrollable cost overruns of a complicated interstate project that included tunnel, bridge and cut & cover techniques.In Europe, both the tunnel and cut & cover concepts are highly advanced. The have been used throughout the region of the Alps. Cut & cover techniques are frequently used in avalanche prone areas. There are being used more frequently for highway bypasses in developed communities. Tunnel building technology is well advanced as well with the longest being over 20 miles. There are numerous examples of bypass tunnels being built under communities to preserve their character. European advances in construction technology have not immunized some projects from costly budget overruns. The success of any project of the scale being considered for Vail is dependent upon having sufficient lead time and access to highly qualified specialists to evaluate its feasibility and design the proposal. Advance planning, experienced construction management and the use of advanced construction technologies are critical to completing large-scale projects on schedule and within budget. The planning and construction of either Vail proposal could require the better part of a decade to execute. Motivating and maneuvering through the required political and financing processes could as well take a decade or longer. Nothing will happen until there is a commitment from the Vail community to begin at the beginning and pursue the concepts to their logical conclusion. The Glenwood Canyon project at first seemed overwhelmingly difficult and almost impossible to imagine as ever becoming reality. We now see there have been tremendous benefits from this project in many different aspects, notwithstanding its heavy financial costs. Vail and the surrounding region are gaining the necessary experience and resources, because of its redevelopment and growth potential, to manage the construction of a project on a scale required to carry out either the tunnel or cut & cover concept. The logistics of housing and providing for a large construction work force are potentially on a similar scale. Vail’s asset values, both existing and projected, are commensurate with communities many times its size, as measured by population and land area. Its property owners have access to major national and international financial markets. Vail through it redevelopment is in the process of demonstrating its durability as a resort community that can attract and hold successive generations of investors. Thus breaking the maturation process, the pitfall of which are more typical of resort communities than not. Central to pursuing either concept is to weigh each proposal against a “do nothing” strategy. There is an influence, no matter which approach is chosen, upon the economy and property values. The consequences and trade offs of each must be thoroughly analyzed and understood. Community acceptance will turn on whether an enduring general consensus arises from a debate over a choice between a rewarding long-term vision and maintaining a status quo of decline. The challenge is to define a financial feasible plan for new development that supplements rather than disassembles the existing fabric of the community. The earlier this debate is resolved, the sooner Vail will be able to fend off speculation about the possibility of a inexorable devaluation in its property and lifestyle because it has chosen to do nothing.Jim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Village Homeowners Association, was the town of Vail’s first director of community development (1972-77). He is a professional town planner and has been involved in most aspects of Vail’s development during his career.


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