Vail Valley Voices: After the oil runs out |

Vail Valley Voices: After the oil runs out

Bill Sepmeier
Vail, CO, Colorado

On Dec.1, 2012, the Summit Daily News, followed by the Vail Daily, carried a story written by Caddie Nath headlined, “Twin tunnels’ widening cost balloons to $100 million; officials plan $5 million revenue study for future tolling lanes.”

This story stated: “With the preliminary work for the twin tunnels-widening project under way, transportation officials are realizing they’re in for nearly double the money originally anticipated. … The tunnel widening is intended to expand the highway to three lanes from Idaho Springs all the way into Denver, helping to improve the flow of heavy weekend and holiday tourist traffic to and from the mountains.”

Nath ends with, “The $5 million study is set to begin early next year and will likely take approximately nine months to complete.”

The Colorado Department of Transportation is going to spend $5 million to study a project that, at best guess, will cost $100 million, 40 percent of which will have to be paid from emergency reserves, since transportation revenue simply can’t afford it.

Let’s study this right now, and save $5 million.

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A look at the Eisenhower Tunnel vehicle count website shows that average traffic has been in decline for five years. This decline in traffic is not trivial.

Since January 2007, the number of tunnel users has dropped by 9 to 10 percent for most months. So far in 2012, the average winter and summer season traffic count per month total is lower than in the same period of 2011.

The trend is persistent. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the CDOT website yourself. Then pay yourself $5 million.

Consider the lengthy construction time of a tunnel blasting and road widening project, with interstate traffic diverted onto the remains of Highway 6 at the Idaho Springs tunnel site, and what this will do to tourism, as well as the cost of goods at local stores when daily delivery trucks are delayed for hours during construction.

Consider the state making this new $100 million lane back to Denver a privately operated toll lane, enriching some connected corporation while imposing even higher costs to reach Vail and Summit County’s resorts when this taxpayer-funded foolishness is complete. The mind boggles.

Call your state representatives and urge them to tell CDOT to dump this waste of $5 million. Cancel the study, now.

Tell them that in this new permanent era of more expensive fuel, and oil will remain expensive, since all of that highly promoted Bakken shale oil and bitumen from Canada’s tar sands, which will supposedly make “America” (which now includes Canada in USA production numbers somehow) a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia in eight or nine years, costs about $90 per barrel to get out of the ground and will still leave the country a net importer of petroleum.

Be sure to note that according to the state of North Dakota, these new well only produce about 1,000 barrels per day, and deplete by 50 percent on average over year one.

The wells cost $9 million each, too, so it has cost $9 billion in wells for each new, short-lived 1,000,000 barrels of output.

Three dollar a gallon gas won’t be seen again without a serious global depression, which will result in nobody anywhere having money for $3 per gallon vacation gas, let alone for skiing or looking at wildflowers or pretty leaves after a two-hour one-way drive.

Vail’s food and lodging tax revenues were up this summer, while retail sales were down. I-70 traffic did not deliver the increase in hotel and restaurant sales. Check the traffic counts. They fell. The spenders evidently came in by air, many from Mexico and South America on private and chartered jets – fewer but wealthier people who stayed longer and enjoyed fine dining, but did not buy a lot of T-shirts.

Summit County is far more Denver dependent than Vail and Aspen. If CDOT wants to spend tens of millions of dollars on long-term solutions for mountain communities, tell CDOT to pick the real emergency.

For Summit County, secure a railroad spur right of way from the main line in Granby down Highway 9 to a passenger depot and warehouses for goods in Silverthorn so that future tourists from the Front Range to Chicago could travel by rail to their favorite resorts.

The fantasy of high speed rail along the I-70 corridor can’t haul freight due to the steep grades, just people, if it would even work with those grades, and that’s doubtful. Nobody’s got the millions needed for that study, either.

Eagle County is already blessed with conventional rail in the valley, which would require minimal work to upgrade the track from the standby level of maintenance it has been held at by federal order.

Eagle County, public or private, could develop a freight warehouse complex downvalley and a passenger terminal at the Westin in Avon so that less than private-jet types could reach our destinations in the post cheap oil future.

The same track could be used for light rail between Dotsero and Avon for commuter and airport shuttle traffic during the time heavy rail isn’t on the track. There is an abandoned hydro plant at Gilman that could be rebuilt and used power to charge a fleet of short range people movers to and from the trains, as well as for delivery vans and trucks for freight from the rail warehouses.

Yes, a project of this scale will require effort and funding of a team to coordinate and execute. It would be time well invested to preserve the central mountain lifestyle – even its basic viability as a place to visit and live over the coming decades.

Pitkin County’s old rail right of way is a bicycle path, but it could be restored to link their slopes to the railroad in Glenwood Springs, and for use by their downvalley service population in coming years. Glenwood Springs already has daily rail freight and passenger service.

All of the rail could be easily electrified and run using existing regional power generation – no diesel required.

Reality will prevail, and the new high cost of energy is as real as a heart attack.

Planning for a long-term future around individual cars and trucks is no longer rational due to ever higher and more scarce liquid energy.

Ignoring our existing heavy rail infrastructure, the only replacement for them, will be economic suicide. Spending a portion of the $100 million CDOT thinks they’ll spend on road widening instead on partnerships with rail operators, so regular tourists could still get here long after $5 to $10 gas is logical once one accepts the real energy reality we’re all facing in the not-so-distant future, if not now, based on traffic counts.

If funds are wasted on what is already becoming a disused roadway, the funds will not be there to adapt the mountain’s transportation needs for products and people to a post-car and truck diesel and gasoline reality.

Vail turned 50 this year. If it will be here at 100, Interstate 70 has to be seen as what it is already – a fading means of importing imported goods and tourist revenues to the mountains, a black hole of diesel-powered maintenance in a very hostile environment whose use is in decline now.

Tell your elected officials and CDOT that considering a $5 million study about spend $100 million for a new car tunnel and lane widening project in Clear Creek County is at best absurd and most likely, a mal-investment of taxpayer funds.

Spending a dime – not to mention $5 million – for a study that attempts to justify this project will be grounds for their dismissal next election.

Bill Sepmeier lives in Sweetwater.

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