Underpass construction’s first focus is on I-70
By the numbers
20 months: Estimated duration of the project.
$30 million: Approximate cost of a new underpass beneath Interstate 70 in Vail.
$9 million: Approximate town of Vail contribution to the project.
70,000: Cubic yards of dirt will be moved.
Project website: https://www.codot.gov/projects/i70vailunderpass.
VAIL — People have been talking since the 1980s about linking Vail’s frontage roads with an underpass beneath Interstate 70. Work has finally begun on that item on the town’s wish list and will continue into late 2017.
Design work started in early 2013 on the underpass, with a funding announcement from the state made in late summer of that year. Since then, the price has increased significantly, from about $21 million to about $30 million today. The town of Vail is picking up roughly 30 percent of the cost.
Town officials say that when finished the new underpass will cure or ease a host of transportation problems. A way to cross I-70 between the main and west Vail interchanges is expected to cut response times for emergency vehicles and will allow the town greater flexibility in routing and scheduling buses. The new underpass will also help bicyclists and pedestrians get across the interstate.
From the state’s perspective, the underpass is expected to reduce traffic at the roundabouts at the main and West Vail interchanges, lengthening the expected service life of those structures.
Getting the new project from the drawing board to construction took about three years, and it wasn’t easy.
The state had to find funding, not just originally but again in 2015, when that higher cost estimate came in. The town also had to increase its stake in the project.
Working with neighbors
Then there was the matter of neighbors. On the south side, the town and state adjusted the project and its landscaping to accommodate one homeowner who lives on the south side of Gore Creek but whose home would be affected by people driving the roundabout at night.
The north side of the project required far more work and negotiation, since the roundabout on that side is near the Simba Run and Savoy Villas condominiums. That work required adjusting the roundabout, retaining wall and landscaping, particularly since the project boundaries come within 50 feet of the nearest Simba Run condo.
Another complication came from the Federal Highway Administration. During the environmental review for the project, the feds determined that the north side of the project was close enough to homes to trigger a study and a vote on adding a noise wall along roughly 4,000 feet of I-70. That wall would have added roughly $5 million to the project’s cost.
A vote of residents came down against adding the wall.
Longtime local architect William Pierce was an advocate of the noise wall and continues to believe that not including it is a missed opportunity in a town where noise from the interstate is always on the minds of residents.
There have also been a number of public updates about the project, both at Town Council meetings and in various open-house sessions in the past few years.
“Like most projects, this has been about public information, getting that information to the right people and getting feedback,” said Tom Kassmel, senior town engineer. “We tried to get people involved early on.”
Since the design work was completed, the project has been turned over largely to the state. And despite having a roughly 17-month construction schedule, a lot will happen fairly quickly, weather permitting.
The first step is rerouting I-70 into two-way traffic to allow excavation under the highway. Now, the eastbound lanes have been squeezed down. A similar switch will take place in about six weeks, with the two-way configuration switching to the westbound lanes.
On the frontage roads
Following the July 4 holiday weekend, work will start on the frontage roads. That’s when in-town traffic is going to get complicated. The north frontage road in particular will see a lot of excavation — with about 70,000 cubic yards of dirt to be moved.
The frontage roads will be shifted to one-way traffic through the construction zones, with eastbound traffic on the south side and westbound traffic on the north side. That means someone driving from Lionshead Village to West Vail will need to head east, though the main Vail roundabout, then head west.
During the 2016-17 ski season, traffic will return to normal on the frontage roads.
The town bike path on the north side will stay open during the project, with a slight detour around the construction zone. The path on the south side will be routed to the Gore Valley Trail.
While he lives near what will be a very busy construction zone, Pierce said he’s figured out a back way to West Vail along Lions Ridge Loop.
And while he still believes the underpass would have been better located a few hundred yards to the east, Pierce said the end result will bring what’s been envisioned for all these years.
“It should be able to do what it’s supposed to do when it’s finished,” Pierce said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.