Vail Town Council, CDOT director talk about possible future partnerships |

Vail Town Council, CDOT director talk about possible future partnerships

This conceptual image, created in 2016 by local architect Sig Bjornson, shows how Interstate 70, its frontage roads and a rail line could be squeezed into a tighter space through Vail.Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Mike Lewis this week told the Vail Town Council that the department is open to ideas about how to cover, and pay for, covering the interstate through part of town.

A partial wish list

• An underpass linking Vail’s north and south frontage roads (done).

• Climbing lanes on Vail Pass (could be funded if voters pass a sales tax hike).

• Covering part of Interstate 70 through Vail (this could take some time and private partners).

• Reducing the speed limit through town to reduce noise (this one’s complicated and unlikely).

Source: Town of Vail

VAIL — Greg Hall has worked in Vail’s public works department for nearly 30 years. In his memory, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s executive director had never come to town. That changed on Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Department director Mike Lewis and department chief engineer Josh Laipply spent about an hour with the Vail Town Council on Tuesday to talk about past, present and possible future projects.

Some of those projects have been talked for decades. An idea for an underpass beneath Interstate 70 to link the town’s North and South Frontage roads had been on the town’s wish list since the 1980s. The project was finally finished in 2017, thanks to a partnership between the town and the state.

Praising the partnership that created the underpass, Lewis said, “That’s the kind of success I think moves the state forward.”

Lewis told council members the state is interested in pursuing other partnerships as it seeks to catch up with the transportation needs of a fast-growing state.

While there are plenty of ideas to improve I-70 through and near Vail, the most likely project is the addition of climbing lanes on eastbound Vail Pass.

How to fund it

Lewis told council members that if voters pass a proposed sales tax increase for transportation projects — Initiative 110 — there will be money available for the Vail Pass project and other work along I-70.

While that project could start work fairly quickly, it would take a relatively complex partnership to fulfill one of Vail’s longest-running transportation dreams: covering part of I-70 through town.

Lewis, a veteran of the “Big Dig” project through Boston, Lewis said covering the highway through Vail is technically feasible, but complicated.

The state can’t pay for such a project itself, meaning the town would have to work to create a partnership that probably would sell real estate over the covered portion of the highway.

Beyond actual construction — and the lighting and ventilation systems required for a covered interstate — Lewis said “air rights” over the highway would have to be secured so development could take place.

The question town officials have to answer is if the project’s benefits make the cost worthwhile.

But, he said, the state wants to be a partner in that process.

“We don’t want (the department) be a wall you have to break through,” he said.

Lewis added he’s not promoting that or other projects. But, he added, the department is a willing partner if a project could be created.

Start it now

That offer of partnership led Mayor Dave Chapin to say it’s time now for the town to start work on creating the partnerships needed for such an ambitious project.

“If we could accomplish it in 30 years, it would be magnificent,” Chapin said.

Chapin and fellow council member Jenn Bruno asked about more immediate ways to cut down on the noise from the interstate, specifically, by reducing the speed limit on the highway.

That might be more complicated that simply finding funding, Lewis said.

Highway speeds are controlled by the Colorado Legislature, he said. In addition, highways built with federal funds — such as I-70 — are also subject to federal rules.

Given the interstate system’s mission to move people and cargo, state’s aren’t able to arbitrarily set speeds, he added. Lower-speed stretched of interstate in cities and other areas — including Dowd Canyon — are dictated by “geometry,” he said.

The state also has little control over truck traffic on interstates.

Given that I-70 is the primary east-west route through Colorado, there’s no real way to restrict truck traffic.

In fact, given the interstate’s importance to both in-state and interstate travel and commerce, Lewis added that accepting I-70 weather closures in the mountains is something that has to change. The answers will include everything from “smart” roads to transit to, eventually, a third bore at the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels.

“We’re willing to meet to talk about anything,” Lewis said, a statement that was warmly greeted by council members.

“We’ve talked with (transportation officials) before,” Chapin said. “We’ve never had this kind of reception.”

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

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