Will I-70 underpass project include walls?
What’s the schedule?
• Jan. 20: Vail Town Council is expected to vote on whether to include sound walls with the Interstate 70 underpass project.
• February: Full voting results expected for including a sound wall with the project.
• April: Project design is expected to be 90 percent complete.
• April: Funding decisions expected for the full project.
• April 2016: Start of construction.
• December 2017: End of construction.
VAIL — Vail’s elected officials and residents continue to wrestle with the details of a proposed underpass beneath Interstate 70. If the project clears several more hurdles, then it will be the biggest public-works project in town since the Vail roundabouts were built in the 1990s.
Since the 1980s, town and state officials have talked about finding a way to link the town’s North and South Frontage roads between the main Vail and West Vail interchanges. The project would take traffic out of the roundabouts at those interchanges, provide an easier way for pedestrian and bicycle traffic to get across the interstate, make the town’s bus routes more efficient and would cut response times for emergency-service vehicles.
The biggest hurdle to clear during those decades has been how to pay for the project. A solution seemed at hand in 2013, when the Colorado Department of Transportation launched a program to more quickly pay for several road projects around the state. Vail’s project was boosted when the town agreed to pay $6 million of the roughly $21 million cost.
But inflation hit the construction industry hard between 2013 and 2014, and a new project estimate in late 2014 put the project’s cost at $29 million.
Scrambling for Cash
Those increases across the state left transportation officials scrambling. The Colorado Transportation Commission in December suggested freeing up an additional $40 million in funding for projects. In addition, the state will require projects of $15 million or more to have independent cost estimates, and planners will have to prove they’ve tried to pare project budgets whenever possible.
If the state agrees to continue funding the project at the current ratio, then Vail would be on the hook for an additional $2.4 million.
That cost could go even higher, depending on a federal environmental requirement.
Given how close the project will be to existing homes, the feds have required affected residents to vote on whether or not they want sound walls. That vote is binding. If affected parties — “benefiting receptors” in bureaucrat-speak — vote for the walls, then they have to be built.
What Kind of Wall?
Town and state officials have come up with cost estimates for a two different types of walls — concrete or acrylic. The extra cost is significant. A 3,400-foot-long, 14-foot-high concrete wall along North Frontage Road carries an estimated cost of nearly $4 million. An acrylic wall would cost another $800,000, according to current estimates. Vail’s share of that additional cost could range from another $1.4 million to $2.2 million above and beyond the added costs of the underpass project.
The need for a wall, and what kind of wall might be built, has divided council members and residents.
Charlie Calcaterra has for months represented the views of owners at the Simba Run condos. That building, along with the Savoy Villas condos, will be the most directly affected by the project.
Speaking at a Jan. 6 Vail Town Council meeting, Calcaterra said most residents he’s spoken with or emailed oppose the wall.
At the same meeting, Diane Johnson, whose family lives near the project, told council members that her family’s condo has a tight view of Vail Mountain, and wouldn’t want to lose that view because of a concrete wall.
Other residents, though, believe the planned walls could help cut interstate noise in town. Longtime local architect Bill Pierce believes an acrylic wall would be a good choice for the project.
“This is Vail — we don’t follow, we lead,” he said.
Beyond public input, the council has a literal vote on the matter. Since the town owns the bike path running through the project area as well as the Timber Ridge apartments, the town has roughly one-third of the votes for affected parties.
How the town will vote is still a mystery. At the Jan. 6 meeting, council members had a lengthy discussion about how the town should allocate its votes. Some council members balked the cost of acrylic walls, not just for the additional up-front costs, but for the continuing costs — a monthly cleaning could cost up to $20,000. Others believed the town should keep the option of acrylic open.
Ultimately, the ballot going to affected residents will ask a simple “yes” or “no” on a noise wall. Before the votes are counted, though, the council will decide — probably at its Jan. 20 meeting — whether to cast a similar up-or-down vote with its share of the ballots.
Whatever the result of the vote, it’s likely the town will spend millions more on the project than first expected.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @scottnmiller.
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