Traffic counts at the Eisenhower Tunnel hit a two-year high for Presidents Day Weekend this year, following a general upward trend in data that shows traffic on the Interstate 70 mountain corridor is getting worse.
Traffic peaked on the eastbound lanes Monday afternoon, with more than 24,000 cars passing through the tunnel. It was a 3 percent increase from numbers recorded on the same holiday in 2012 and the highest traffic count since 2010.
Volume on I-70, the primary thoroughfare between Denver and the mountains, has been on an uphill slope, increasing roughly 3 percent per year at the Eisenhower Tunnel, with some fluctuations relative to snowfall, the economy and the price of gas, officials say.
It's a trend that is expected to continue as the number of people living in the Denver area grows.
"The Front Range population is projected to continue to increase over the coming years," said Margaret Bowes, head of the I-70 Coalition, a group of stakeholders that pushes for traffic solutions on the mountain corridor. "We fully expect that, though there will be some fluctuations from year to year, the trend will be for traffic to continue to increase."
More than 82,000 vehicles passed through the Eisenhower Tunnel on Saturday and Sunday. According to the latest I-70 future-needs study, traffic on peak weekends could increase to nearly 200,000 by 2035, with travel times growing accordingly.
To head off the problem, local officials and I-70 corridor stakeholders are pushing a combination of long- and short-term solutions aimed at reducing congestion and increasing capacity on the highway.
"We're always focused on keeping the work toward a long-term solution," Bowes said. "But we're also focused very much on near-term and using travel demand management strategies. A big part of that is encouraging off-peak travel."
Urging drivers to avoid the periods when the highway generally sees the heaviest effort has been a multifaceted effort that has gained steam in the last year. New smartphone applications allow drivers to view up-to-date travel times and road conditions, while the I-70 Coalition is collaborating with local businesses and resorts to initiate deals to incentivize travelers to make the drive back to Denver at off-peak times.
Last summer, the Colorado Department of Transportation also began posting messages on electronic signs on the highway encouraging drivers to plan around the predictable periods of heavy traffic, such as Sunday afternoons, when many mountain visitors are returning to Denver.
Transportation officials say they may continue to use electronic messages, which were effective in shifting driver travel times, but the corridor will likely continue to see heavy traffic, particularly on weekends.
"It's definitely under consideration," CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson said. "But we're going to still get plenty of traffic up in the mountains."
Long-term projects are generally focused on increasing the highway's capacity, beginning with an expansion of eastbound I-70 to three lanes at the Twin Tunnels, near Idaho Springs. The project will require a full closure of the eastbound highway lanes from April through October, but is expected to improve the flow of traffic when complete by expanding a key choke point on the corridor.