Rundles wrap up: Traffic jams indeed

On my way to Denver International Airport recently for a passenger pickup, I used my preferred airport route and travelled the entire distance of I-225 from I-25 to I-70. I did that same thing the night I-225 opened way back in 1976 just to get a feel for the new “loop” on the east side of town. What has continued to amaze me over the years – and I have travelled the I-225 route hundreds of times – is that never, not once, not ever did I traverse that 11.959 miles of highway when there wasn’t some sort of construction going on. I-225 has always been and is today, as they say, a work in progress.

I think of it as a metaphor for Colorado transportation. Once you create more access, a more direct route, you also create more opportunity for growth, which accelerates the need for more transportation capacity, which leads to more growth, and … you get the picture. We seem to be constantly building to meet the current demand and by the time that project is complete (if it ever is) there is immediate need to meet higher demands, and so on.

It got me thinking about the relatively new proposal to “improve” the I-70 corridor from Denver to the Vail Valley, the so-called Parsons Plan, developed by the California-based international construction and engineering firm Parsons Corp., which maintains offices in Colorado. In a nutshell, the Parsons Plan calls for adding reversible express toll-way lanes on the roadway between C-470 on the west side of the Denver metro area to Silverthorne, just west of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel. The $3.5 billion plan also calls for additional bores in the Eisenhower Tunnel and the Twin Tunnels at Idaho Springs.

An interesting note in the reporting concerning this latest attempt to do something – anything! – about the mess that is I-70 in the heavy tourist seasons was a mention of growth. When the first bore at Eisenhower was completed in 1973, the population of Colorado was 1.8 million people. The congestion that had been over Loveland Pass before the tunnel eased for a short time, but even with a second bore (the Johnson Tunnel) opened in 1979, complaints over crowded conditions, particularly during weekends, soon set in. The population in Colorado now stands at nearly 5.2 million people.

The toll-way idea adds a revenue-generating component, which is a necessary idea, but I see little in the plans that addresses whether or not it will be adequate for a sufficient period of time. In all likelihood, we could add $3.5 billion or $5 billion or $10 billion in purported congestion-easing improvements and experience vexing congestion on Day One. Then we’d be out the money and back to square one: discussing ways to improve the I-70 traffic conditions. I’ve been here 40 years, heard this conversation and seen improvement attempts at least a dozen times. But no matter what happens I just can’t help feeling as though my grandchildren, who aren’t born yet, will be bitching about I-70 and the access for their own families 40 years from now. 

So the real question is what do we really do? I think the real solution is much broader than I-70 – and it has broader implications for transportation all over the state, and the growing metropolitan areas of Denver, Colorado Springs and Northern Colorado. For the future to be anything other than doomed to repeat the past, we need to widen the conversation. That should include mass transit, surely – and more than just in the metro area – but also alternative routes to the playgrounds of the central mountains and in, out and across the major cities. Couldn’t U.S. 285 become a larger highway and feed Summit County? Could there be another, similar highway from the northern and western suburbs that loops into Silverthorne, Copper Mountain and ultimately Vail from the north? Could Denver (and other areas) have more complete east/west and north/south thoroughfares?

Instead of a work in progress, constantly, transportation planning in Colorado should, in a broader context, represent real progress. Real progress means doing more than solving today’s problems, but rather anticipating tomorrow’s. I know today’s planners claim that is exactly what they are doing – what they have done for 50 years – but there is ample evidence that they consistently underestimate reality. 

Traffic jams indeed.