Vail Pass upgrades will have to balance needs of motorists, cyclists, wildlife

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. Current estimates put the cost of the work at $500 million.

By the numbers:

$500 million: Current estimate to re-do Interstate 70 on the west side of Vail Pass.

16: Bridges on that roughly 9-mile stretch of interstate.

91: Full pass closures in 2017 (there were days with multiple closures).

558: Crashes between 2014 and 2016 on Interstate 70 on the west side of Vail Pass.

Source: Colorado Department of Transportation.

VAIL — Kirk Hansen lives near the western base of Vail Pass. He’d like to see the highway redone, but has a number of questions.

As Colorado Department of Transportation officials plan the future of Interstate 70 on the west side of the pass, they’re seeking input from other agencies, residents and highway users about what that still-unfunded project should look like.

The plan — now in the midst of about two years’ worth of preliminary planning — currently shows a number of bridge replacements — perhaps as many as 16 — and adding a third lane to both the westbound and eastbound lanes.

Adding lanes to the highway will be expensive, but officials say a third lane will allow the highway to stay open more often in the winter. When there are accidents, the Colorado State Patrol will often close both lanes so emergency responders can work more safely.

Safety is perhaps the primary reason officials are looking to re-do that stretch of highway — now the most-closed stretch of I-70 through the mountain corridor. Other safety improvement will include putting more gentle curves in some areas — the highway was built when the national speed limit was 55 mph.

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But while there were environmental standards when the Vail Pass stretch was designed and built in the 1970s, there are more concerns today, both through law and thanks to 40 years of experience on the road.

That’s why transportation officials are working with other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife on ways to improve recreation and be more kind to wildlife.

Noise is a problem

At a Thursday evening open house at Vail’s Donovan Pavilion, Hansen, who lives near the highway in East Vail, said noise will also be a consideration for him and his neighbors.

“That’s a major concern,” Hansen said, adding that the bike path along the pass also needs a number of safety improvement.

Shannon Anderson is a member of the committee that’s been working on the Vail Pass plan that’s been developed so far. Anderson, who’s also a member of Bicycle Colorado, said the Vail Pass redo is a “great opportunity” for the bike path.

“It’s terrifying in places,” Vail resident Brian Stockmar said of the paths, which in places are hard against the highway.

Stockmar, a longtime Vail resident, said while the highway was a marvel when it was built, driving it now brings questions of why the road was built the way it was.

When the plan is complete, state officials hope it solves a number of current problems and avoids trouble in the future.

Dave Cesark is the Colorado Department of Transportation’s planning and environmental manager for northwestern Colorado. At the open house, Cesark said planning for a revamped stretch of highway needs to balance motor vehicles, wildlife and recreation.

So far, he said, officials have heard a lot of support for the plan.

But this two-year planning process is only part of what will be needed. The project will need to have a complete federal Environmental Assessment, part of the National Environmental Policy Act. If a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement is needed, that will add time, and cost, to the plan.

Echoing Glenwood Canyon

Minturn resident Woody Woodworth said he’s confident that this level of planning can achieve that balance.

A longtime resident, Woodworth said he hopes planning and execution on Vail Pass can match, or exceed, the balance reached on the Glenwood Canyon stretch of I-70.

Diane Johnson, the community information manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said she frequently hears the Glenwood Canyon comparisons.

In the case of the canyon, though, it took a lot of litigation to end up with a plan to try to meld the canyon with the natural environment there. It won’t take that to do this job.

“This is a good opportunity to get a lot of things right,” Cesark said. “We’d like the opportunity to build it right, from scratch.”

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

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