Traffic taking a toll in Eagle and Gypsum
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Beth Hufnagel isn’t just irritated about the daily traffic jam she gets caught in in Eagle as she commutes to and from her job upvalley. These days, she is downright scared.
As she attempts to exit Interstate 70 each evening, Hufnagel often finds herself stopped in the right-hand traffic lane as commuters clog the Eagle exit ramp. She watches anxiously as cars and semi trucks barrel down the highway.
“It’s a nightmare getting off the interstate when we come home at night,” says Hufnagel. “It is so bad that I am actually considering leaving town.”
Her experience isn’t unique. Eagle’s most recent comprehensive traffic study, completed in 2006, gives failing grades to several intersections during rush hours.
Since that time, the problem has only gotten worse with the opening of Costco, increased development at Eagle Ranch and continuing expansion at the Eagle County Regional Airport.
Eagle’s problem results from the physical reality that everyone has to use the same route ” Eby Creek Road ” to reach Interstate 70, check mail delivery or buy groceries. During times when traffic is heaviest, a predicable bottleneck occurs.
In the neighboring community of Gypsum, a similar problem exists when traffic from various developments in the Gypsum Creek Valley, patrons at the new recreation center and traffic for three schools all converge on Valley Road.
The community also deals with a bottleneck at the intersection of Highway 6 and Valley Road for traffic headed to I-70. A narrow railroad overpass in Gypsum makes expanding Highway 6 through town difficult and costly.
Most citizens don’t question the need for traffic improvements in Eagle and Gypsum. The question is, who pays the bill?
Traffic solutions don’t come cheap. Recently the towns, together with Eagle County, commissioned a traffic study conducted by THK Associates, Inc. of Boulder. That study estimates there’s $600 million worth of road work needed downvalley.
In presenting that figure to town representatives last week, Peter Elzi of THK, was the bearer of grim tidings.
“This may not be a study you are happy with, because it has some pretty sobering information in it,” he said.
Projecting road needs out 25 years, the study estimates the population in Eagle will grow to 13,000 while Gypsum will hit 15,000. Elzi said that while the communities can make road improvements over that time with impact money exacted from new development, that isn’t the answer for all traffic ills.
“You have to have new growth pay its fair share of the cost of development, but you can’t expect new growth to solve all sins or errors of the past,” he said.
Additionally, the longer the towns wait to make improvements, the more difficult the situation becomes. Traffic congestion and the cost of road improvements will continue to escalate.
“The longer you wait, the worse the problem is going to get,” Elzi warns.
Eby Creek Road and Highway 6 are both state roadways.
Gypsum Town Council member Tim McMichael said that if enough political pressure is applied, the state has been known to step up and pay for improvements. He cites Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Aspen as an illustration.
But for others, waiting for the state to solve the issue isn’t a viable option.
Eagle Town Engineer Tom Gosiorowski says that Eagle, Gypsum and Eagle County can talk all they want about how local traffic improvements are actually the state’s responsibility. But in fact, he notes, local entities need to step up with some money if they want to attract state or federal dollars for projects.
“The reality of it is how long are we willing to wait, write letters and suffer?” asks Gosiorowski.
Eagle has a $6.1 million total general fund budget for 2008; and Gypsum has an $11.4 million spending plan for next year.
Eva Wilson, Eagle County engineer, pointed to recently approved state funding for traffic improvements in Edwards as an example. Wilson noted that Eagle County and the Edwards Metropolitan Recreation District each chipped in $250,000; and the state contributed $500,000 to complete the design costs for the project.
A project with a completed design in hand is a more attractive option for the state when it comes time to doll out improvement dollars, she said.
Among the potential revenue sources identified in the THK study is increasing sales tax. Eagle has the highest sales tax allowed by law and Gypsum has already tapped sales tax increases to pay for its recreation center.
A new property tax increase has gotten some support from the two towns and Elzi recommended the towns and the county form a special taxing district for transportation.
But all parties agree, a local district can’t take on the whole traffic needs list. Instead, the towns and county may decide which projects are the top priorities.
In Eagle, a top need is Eby Creek Road improvements. In Gypsum, it’s the Highway 6 railroad bridge.
Representatives from both towns agreed to spend the coming months defining their respective top road priorities. They will then meet again to discuss the political potential of going to the voters to fund the list. The earliest possible time for a bond issue election would be fall 2009.
In the end, Elzi noted the towns can’t depend on other sources to fund traffic needs.
“The federal government and Colorado Department of Transportation isn’t just going to ride into town and say ‘Here’s a check for $600 million.'”
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