Posted: April 01, 2009

Rundles wrap-up: The I-70 mountain corridor mess

"Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded." – Yogi Berra

Jeff Rundles

Lord knows why I even decided to look into what’s being done to fix the I-70 corridor through the mountains.

The traffic problems from Floyd Hill, through the Eisenhower Tunnels, into Summit County and on into Vail have been vexing for many, many years, and I knew when I got into this that I would find study groups, more study groups, Environmental Impact Studies, “stakeholder” meetings, yadda, yadda, yadda.

In other words, this being a problem needing to be addressed by government – the state government, the federal government, and all the county and municipal governments throughout the corridor – I already knew that, really, nothing is being done.

Rundles_Trafficjam_Lrg.jpg

As a friend of mine put it, “You won’t be alive when solutions to the congestion of I-70 are implemented.” That may be the bright side; I intend to be around for a long, long time. But, c’mon. I am not a big skier, and I make too few visits to the mountains, particularly in the winter. But two recent weekend trips – one just a Saturday trip to Keystone for ice skating, and one a weekend jaunt to Glenwood and Sunlight – reminded me why I don’t frequent the mountains. I hate heavy traffic, and in the whole world you’d be hard-pressed to find heavier traffic than certain times on Interstate 70 from Floyd Hill through Silverthorne and back. And statistics show it’s even worse on summer weekends.

I made several calls to agencies and authorities and found what I expected: a 2008 Collaborative Effort report, first launched in 1998 and restarted in 2007, that outlines a broad “multimodal” vision, which must await the completion of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), which has already been eight years in the making with no hope for an acceptable final report before, at the earliest, late 2010.

And, since a major consensus is that any improvements to the I-70 mountain corridor should include an Advanced Guideway System (essentially, some sort of rail), you can push dates for any noticeable improvement out years – my guess would be 15 years if we’re lucky, 25 if things go well.

Look, I’m a rail guy. I long supported light rail in Denver, and love it, and I am firmly on board for expanding the Denver-area light rail system. But I also know a thing or two about rail, or Guideway Systems, that don’t speak well for relief in the I-70 mountain corridor.

First, rail is extremely expensive on flat, rural land, so going through the mountains, the cost would be astronomical; and, second, fixed guideways need regular passengers, and I can’t imagine finding a sustainable ridership from Denver to anywhere along the corridor for more than two or three days a week at best, and only eight months of the year. That won’t cut it.

Even if you can somehow overcome logic and get rail service, the corridor would also require highway improvement – more lanes. And problematic as it is, highway improvement is the only logical choice in the short-term, like 10 years. There are funding ideas like tolls at the Eisenhower tunnel, but because of the PEIS and tough local opposition in places (“collaboration” is often when you agree with “me”), we’re still years away from any real relief, and that is best-case.

Let’s be honest. The I-70 corridor up through the Continental Divide is often disgraceful. It is not just a bottleneck for my car and yours, it is an impediment to Colorado tourism — a huge industry for our state — and to statewide commerce in general.

For immediate relief, I suggest this: at the heavy traffic times —  and we know exactly when they are — create high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes requiring a minimum of three people. Pretty soon all the one-sies and two-sies will find car pools, buses or shuttles. And toll the tunnel in the high-demand direction. Save the money for if and when infrastructure improvements take hold, and in the meantime the toll will further thin the herd.

Hey, I know. Let’s get a study group together on my ideas. At least we know we can do that.

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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