No easy fix for I-70 problems
Build three lanes from Floyd Hill to the Eagle County Airport. Check. Alas … if only it were that easy.
Every few years, the idea of adding a lane to the Interstate 70 Mountain Corridor resurfaces. The congestion issue along this steep and narrow highway is complex, and the solutions, expensive.
In most years, the Colorado Department of Transportation receives zero state general fund dollars, due to Colorado’s unique TABOR Amendment. TABOR limits government growth by restricting how much tax revenue the state can keep, and it has severely hampered the ability to fund core services, such as transportation and education. Instead, CDOT mainly relies upon the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since the early 1990s, lagging behind the pace of inflation, and for that matter, the cost of asphalt.
CDOT Director Shailen Bhatt said the department has a $1 billion annual shortfall. The department’s budget allows for system maintenance, but little else, and certainly not 100 miles of new pavement. Other transportation funding pots are restricted and limited, tied to bridges and safety, for example.
A recent study on an Advanced Guideway System, from Golden to the Eagle County airport concluded that, although technologically feasible (a feat in and of itself, given grade and alignment challenges), it is not financially feasible (at this time).
An additional lane would not only create massive environmental impacts, but in some cases, cut directly into the heart of historic towns and popular tourist areas.
The suggestion that more pavement is the solution sparked the creation of the I-70 Coalition in 2004. This 28-member advocacy organization includes local governments and businesses from Golden to Eagle County. The towns of Vail, Minturn, Avon and Eagle are members, as is Eagle County Government and Vail Resorts.
Hundreds of stakeholders, including the I-70 Coalition, CDOT, the Federal Highways Administration and others have spent years in efforts to agree upon an unprecedented 50-year Record of Decision, detailing the path forward. That document’s “preferred alternative” was codified in 2011, and provides a road map for future projects that addresses pinch points and adds multi-modal solutions including transit.
Progress is being made. Recently, CDOT built a third lane between Idaho Springs and Floyd Hill, even boring through the Twin Tunnels, (now known as the Veterans Memorial Tunnels), to make space for the additional lane.
Widened shoulders from Empire to Idaho Springs now serve as a part-time, 13-mile tolled express lane during peak travel periods. Dynamic pricing keeps traffic distributed between the three lanes. Last winter, speeds were maintained in the 40 to 55 mph range on the highway’s busiest days.
During accidents, the express lane opens at no charge to keep the traffic flowing. CDOT data show success with faster travel times, fewer accidents, and tolls that average $4 to $6.
CDOT also recently added the Bustang, a state-of-the-art, low cost bus service between Glenwood Springs and Denver.
Winter strategies to address safety and highways closures are also being implemented. Two years ago, CDOT began investing more than $10 million in an annual Winter Operations Plan, to mount a larger and quicker response to snow storms. Complementing this effort, State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush is striving to pass a winter tire tread bill to dissuade motorists from driving on worn tires, and promote a safer and quicker travel experience.
Finally, technology might save the day. On the horizon is CDOT’s pilot program Road X. Road X utilizes emerging technology to increase safety and mobility. Yes, connected vehicles, virtual guardrails and self-driving cars are in our future, promoting a faster, safer and more consistent flow of traffic.
So, while there is no simple fix to this problem, progress is being made. Using CDOT’s own words, “We are heirs to a system we don’t have the resources to adequately maintain, rebuild or expand and we have learned we cannot just build our way out of congestion.”
Jill Ryan is an Eagle County commissioner and is vice chair of the I-70 Coalition.