Motivation and Money Roadblocks to I-70 Expansion

The I-70 corridor from Jefferson County to Summit County can be at times one big parking lot. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem to matter what time of the year it is or if you are going eastbound or westbound, the situation is about the same: bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The problem is so obvious, you would think that expanding I-70 through the mountains would be on the front burner for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and federal highway officials. You would assume that state and federal politicians would be working to line up funding, and that Colorado citizens would invest in mass transit solutions to the I-70 traffic problems.

As you sit in your SUV, inching towards Eisenhower Tunnel, you may convince yourself that this is just a temporary situation. But you would be wrong on all counts.“It’s going to get worse before it gets better–and we’re talking about 10 years of worse than better,” said Flo Raitano about I-70 through the mountains. Raitano is the director of the Interstate 70 Central Mountain Transportation Corridor Coalition, better known as the I-70 Coalition, that represents eight mountain counties and 25 towns and cities affected by transportation issues on I-70.

Whether you are a skier or have a cabin in the woods, you know the I-70 traffic is beyond a crisis situation right now. There are proposed short-term fixes like ramp metering at the US 40, Frisco, Silverthorne, and Copper Mountain exits, but as Raitano noted, it shifts the traffic jams from I-70 to city streets. “At least travelers stuck in city traffic could make alternate plans like eating dinner or staying at their condo until the problem subsides,” she said.

Changing people’s behavior may also temporarily relieve congestion on I-70, but it’s a long shot. “How realistic is it to convince people-and employers-to shift your weekend of skiing to the middle of the week?” Raitano asked. “The situation has gotten so bad that we heard some Front Range visitors have stopped coming to recreate in the mountains.” As Fraitano pointed out, “That will greatly impact our mountain economy.”

Truckers are also an important part of the transportation mix on I-70. “We may have to say ‘local deliveries only’ and send the rest of the heavy truck traffic north to I-80,” Fraitano speculated. Truck drivers often get into trouble over the passes with shifting loads, burning brakes, bad weather conditions, and unsafe trucks. “I think CDOT estimated that 75% of the trucks on I-70 would not pass safety inspections,” Raitano added. “No wonder we have huge traffic delays caused by trucking accidents.”

The long-term fix on I-70 from Idaho Springs to Vail would be to build another lane on both east and westbound routes and add mass transit trains. “But that’s not a solution for Georgetown or Idaho Springs which would lose historic downtown areas in an I-70 expansion,” explained Fraitano. “That leaves CDOT going ‘up’ instead of ‘out’ and that means we’re talking about a $4 billion-plus building project.”

No doubt, the visual effects of a “Californiated” double-decked mulitple-lane highway through the heart of the Rocky Mountains would be a hard sell, too.

The failure of a mass transit ballot initiative in 2002 hurt the progress of alternative travel on I-70. Voters may have been reluctant to OK millions in expenditures, but it’s been a penny saved, lots of time lost in resolving gridlock on I-70 through the mountains.

The biggest obstacle in the I-70 mountain corridor solution is political will and leadership, according to Fraitano. Although coalition members are working on solutions, Fraitano insists that federal and state politicians must take this project in hand to make it happen. “We need an ‘earmark expenditure’ to start the ball rolling,” she said.

So, the next time you are stuck in I-70 traffic coming back to Denver after a day of playing, you may try calling the governor or your Congressman for action. Otherwise, the bulldozers won’t be moving anytime soon.

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