Vail Pass highway expansion isn’t funded, but the work is being planned now | VailDaily.com

Vail Pass highway expansion isn’t funded, but the work is being planned now

If funding is ever available to expand Interstate 70 on the west side of Vail Pass, it's going to be expensive. Just one part, pictured here, is a pair of bridges, both 900 feet long, that will have to be replaced. Environmental concerns will also play a big role in planning the work.

VAIL — The west side of Vail Pass on Interstate 70 is the most closed and most accident-riddled stretch of that highway as it goes through the Rockies. Making the highway safer will take a lot of money, money that isn't available for the foreseeable future.

Despite the lack of funding, Colorado Department of Transportation officials have been working on plans to expand and modify the highway. State and local officials will hold an open house to talk about those plans from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 13, at Donovan Pavilion in Vail.

While there's a lot of planning to do — and the best cost estimate right now is "really expensive" — the basics include adding a lane to both eastbound and westbound lanes of the highway. That's roughly 20 new lane-miles of road.

The Vail Town Council at its Tuesday, Dec. 4, evening meeting heard an overview of the project from John Kronholm, the state's project engineer, Vail Public Works Director Greg Hall and longtime resident Dick Cleveland, a member of the committee advising state officials.

In addition to the new lanes, Kronholm told council members that some of the existing curves in the road would be "flattened," making lanes more gently curved.

Same road, different speeds

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Kronholm said an extra lane in each direction could help with several problems that cause accidents and road closures. A third lane could help with some of the speed differentials between slow-moving heavy trucks and faster-moving passenger vehicles. Those different speeds contribute to a number of accidents, Kronholm said.

A third lane, along with shoulders, would also help the Colorado State Patrol keep traffic moving following accidents. Kronholm noted when an accident closes one lane, officers often close the other to provide room to work safely.

Much of the U.S. interstate system — including Vail Pass — was built in an era when not much attention was paid to the environment surrounding those highways. Things are far different today.

In the case of Vail Pass, that means accounting for noise, recreation paths, wildlife and the health of Black Gore Creek, which runs adjacent to much of the roadway.

The health of Gore Creek is going to be a big issue, since it's a substantial part of the water supply for Vail and the upper valley.

In a telephone interview after Tuesday's meeting, Eagle River Watershed Council Director Holly Loff said the prospect of an essentially new stretch of I-70 along Vail Pass presents a number of concerns, but also opportunities.

Given the era in which the existing roadway was designed and built, Loff noted that the safety and environmental improvements in the road have been "retrofitted" to the highway.

"The opportunity is that by planning ahead, knowing what we know now, we can have an I-70 that collects (runoff and sand) and is planned from the beginning to do that."

On the day there's money …

While there's no money for construction at the moment, transportation department spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said it's essential to have plans ready for the day money is available.

Trulove noted that after being rejected in the 1990s, the Grand Avenue Bridge in Glenwood Springs was redesigned in the ensuing years, with a plan largely in place when funding was available.

The same thing happened in Edwards in 2009. When funds for construction came through, the state, Eagle County and the Edwards community had an existing plan for a series of roundabouts on the spur road between I-70 and U.S. Highway 6.

Trulove said that while there's no money for construction, there is money available for design. That's going to help.

In the meantime, town officials say they'd like to look at more immediate answers to make driving I-70 over Vail Pass more safe, especially in inclement weather.

Vail Town Council member Jen Mason said she isn't sure that widening the road is the best solution, adding that she hopes state officials will "listen very carefully" to residents and other stakeholders during the planning process.

"There are 16 bridges on this stretch of highway. Everything being proposed and discussed has an impact," Cleveland said. "When this is built, it'll be multiple years. It's important for the community to get involved now. … Our job is to minimize impacts on the community, wildlife and drinking water."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com and 970-748-2930.

Want to learn more?

An open house to discuss expanding Interstate 70 on the west side of Vail Pass is set for Thursday, Dec. 13, at Vail’s Donovan Pavilion. The open house is scheduled from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.