Transportation forum in Edwards highlights both state and local needs
By the numbers
164 percent: Increase in Colorado’s population since 1990.
17 percent: Increase in state highway lane miles in the same period.
1991: The last time Colorado raised its gasoline tax.
$1 million: Economic cost of a one-hour closure of Interstate 70 in the mountains.
Source: Colorado Department of Transportation
EDWARDS — Colorado is growing, and most of the state is thriving — except for the transportation system.
For some insight on the problems with, and possible solutions for, the state’s transportation system, the Vail Symposium and the Vail Valley Partnership on Tuesday, Sept. 11, hosted a seminar, Rocky Roads or Smooth Sailing? A Discussion on the State of Transportation in Colorado, at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards.
The seminar featured three speakers: Herman Stockinger, of the Colorado Department of Transportation; Chris Lubbers, director of Eagle County’s ECO Transit; and Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan.
All spoke about the state and valley’s current transportation systems and problems, as well as what could happen in the near and more-distant future.
Ryan is the commissioners’ representative on the I-70 Coalition, a group of governments and businesses dedicated to improving both flow and safety on Interstate 70 from Vail to the Denver area.
Ryan noted that capacity on I-70 through the mountains is essentially unchanged since the mountain segment was completed in 1979.
There are exceptions, and there have been some smaller projects, but most of the corridor was built for traffic less-populated state.
Rapid, recent growth
The state has had bursts of growth in the past 40 years, but the past several years have brought new people — and their vehicles — at a rapid pace.
Ryan noted that the 10 heaviest traffic days at the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnels have all come since 2016.
Money is the biggest impediment to improving the mountain corridor. Actually, money is the biggest impediment to improving the entire state’s transportation system.
Despite a chronic funding shortfall, the Colorado Department of Transportation does have a plan for the I-70 mountain corridor. That plan includes some strategic highway widening, such as the current eastbound toll lane through Clear Creek County.
The plan — finally approved in 2011 after more than a decade of work — also envisions high-speed rapid transit along the corridor.
A subsequent study determined that a high-speed transit line through the corridor is technically feasible. But, Ryan said, that system is prohibitively expensive. Estimates from a few years ago put the cost of an advanced “guideway” system at $6.8 billion for a stretch from Breckenridge to the intersection of I-70 and C-470 in the Denver area. The entire stretch, from C-470 to the Eagle County Regional Airport, carried an estimated price tag of $13.3 billion.
The department of transportation’s current combined annual budgets for maintenance and projects add up to $2.55 billion.
But plans for high-speed transit may be displaced by rapidly developing technology.
The state is partnering with private firms Hyperloop and Arrivo on possible high-speed technology that could transform the state’s transportation picture.
Near term answers
While work is continuing on those ideas, immediate needs remain.
Talking about local needs, Lubbers said current work on developing a master plan for ECO Transit is continuing and should be completed by spring of 2019. But, Lubbers said, more revenue is needed for the agency to work on everything from electric buses to added service to improved bus stops.
Some money may come the valley’s way if state voters pass Initiative 110 in November. If that measure passes, the state’s sales tax will increase by 0.62 percent. Money from that tax would be split between the state highway fund and a fund for “multi-modal” projects from transit to bike-sharing. Counties and towns would each share in 20 percent of the tax.
Ryan said the valley’s towns and the county could use that money to partner on transit and other projects.
During a Q&A period, resident Jim Picard asked why the tax question isn’t limited to the gas tax.
Ryan said the sales tax initiative was brought forward by citizen groups — including many of the state’s chambers of commerce — that had commissioned polling over the past few years. This year, there was little support for a gas tax.
Besides, Ryan added, the purchasing power of gas taxes will continue to decline as cars get more efficient. An increasing number of electric cars on the roads won’t pay any gas taxes at all, she said.
When the presenters were asked what their “silver bullet” answer would be to the state’s transportation problems, Ryan quickly said it’s the sales tax proposal.
“We finally have a fix before us,” she said. “It’s that simple, and magic, should it pass.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com and 970-748-2930.