Vail Pass project goes into winter hibernation
Massive construction effort aimed at improving safety, reducing closures
In August, as a $140 million improvement project was getting underway on Vail Pass, Capt. Jared Rapp with the Colorado State Patrol described that section of Interstate 70 as an engineering marvel that just needs a few safety updates.
“And those changes are going to come, I think, as soon as they put a shovel in the ground,” Rapp said.
It was a bold prediction for a project that’s not scheduled to be complete until the end of 2025.
But as the project goes into its first winter shutdown, one little piece of Vail Pass is already safer as crews have reconstructed the emergency truck ramp at Mile Point 182 to remove a sharp right curve that was difficult for truck drivers to safely navigate, CDOT has confirmed.
“Crews also focused on utility work for a westbound highway closure system near Mile Point 190, at the top of Vail Pass,” CDOT wrote in a release. “As the project team prepares for the winter shutdown, the project is on schedule and on budget.”
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The winter shutdown began this week.
‘Substandard roadway geometry’
Rapp’s description of Vail Pass as an engineering marvel, rather than a notorious choke point, reveals the respect the area’s first responders have for the mountain roads they patrol.
Vail Mountain and the town of Vail are named after the paved road that bears the name of the state’s chief highway engineer, Charles Vail, who oversaw the selection of U.S. Highway 6 becoming a paved route over the southern tip of the Gore Range, rather than over Shrine Pass and through Red Cliff. That was 1940.
The completion of the section of interstate on Vail Pass that is currently being improved in the I-70 West Vail Pass Auxiliary Lanes project did not occur until 1979. A unique retaining wall design from Frank Lloyd Wright’s design firm was used, and the Vail Pass section of interstate also contained the first example of a separated bike path over a mountain pass alongside an interstate in Colorado.
Amid all that innovation, however, “in 1979, you had different standards for traffic flow,” as pointed out by Rapp.
The crash rate on Vail Pass is now the highest for all of I-70 per million vehicle miles traveled in Colorado, with 558 crashes from 2014 to 2016. CDOT has determined that the high crash rate is due to “substandard roadway geometry including tight curves, speed differentials and the narrow roadway that impacts driver correction.”
Under the new project, “now you’re going to see an increased ability for traffic to safely navigate, as some of the substandard grades and superelevations are changed,” Rapp said.
Rec path set to move
When crews return to the project in the spring, they will set their sights on the bike path, relocating 2 miles of the paved recreation path away from the interstate “to create a safer and more enjoyable experience for trail users,” CDOT said.
Crews will also focus on bridge construction at mile marker 185.3; wildlife crossings underneath the highway and fencing along the highway to prevent wildlife-vehicle collisions; and roadway preparation for the main event, construction of a new lane on the eastbound interstate which will be used as an auxiliary lane for first responders and others.
“This project will allow a third lane for us to be able to work safely,” Rapp said.
Construction of the new lane is expected to occur in 2023, CDOT said in a statement.
The Colorado Department of Transportation is reminding drivers to expect heavier than normal traffic for the next few days as people travel for Thanksgiving and begin shopping for the holidays.
In addition to checking COtrip.org, drivers can get the latest information on the status of the state’s roadways by calling 511. Specific information regarding Interstate 70 is available at: GoI70.com.