Thirty-minute delays are not unusual for a typical Sunday drive from the mountains to the Front Range. But on Feb. 9, weekend warrior traffic went from a crawl to a dead halt as eastbound motorists were taking four, five, even six hours or more to get about 8 miles from the Silverthorne exit on Interstate 70 up to the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel.
Crystal Morgan, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said a combination of a big travel weekend, hazardous conditions, other road closures and earlier avalanche reduction work led to the long line of cars bumper-to-bumper up Highway 6 through Dillon waiting to get on the interstate.
Thad Noll, assistant Summit County manager, said the approach to the Eisenhower tunnel frequently backs up during snowstorms. While people want to blame the delays on trucks, he said, it’s more so cars that stop and can’t get going again once they spin out.
“The approach up the hill on a normal day, even with lots of traffic, it’s not a problem, but when it’s snowy or icy that’s the end of it,” he said.
The day began with both directions of I-70 closed at the Eisenhower tunnel for avalanche reduction work. By the time the road reopened at 8:30 a.m., there were already major westbound delays, according to CDOT.
By noon, Loveland Pass was closed, and by 2:30 p.m. CDOT was reporting at least two-hour delays to Denver. Throughout the afternoon, I-70 was closed at Silverthorne to clear the accidents up the hill, adding to the delays. Morgan said it was a dead stop at Silverthorne most of the evening.
“We don’t like to completely close the road unless we absolutely have to,” she said. “The roadway is so congested, even after we close it, we still have to clear the queue. We saw passenger vehicles spun out, which cause those backups. Then we have to close the road for an hour or so to clear all of those out of the way.”
On Friday, Feb. 7 both directions of the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnel recorded 36,390 cars total traveling through. Saturday, Feb. 8 saw 36,414 and then Sunday, the numbers were lower at 29,866, most likely, Morgan said, because of the extreme delays.
“We’re at the point now with a thing like [Sunday], we know it can happen,” Noll said. “A three-hour trip from Silverthorne to the tunnel is not really an open road, it’s effectively closed. Our goal is to improve that messaging and tell people they should not be driving.”
This past weekend is typically a heavy traffic weekend anyway, post-Super Bowl. But with adverse weather and Loveland Pass closed, traffic times approached four hours or more just from Silverthorne to the tunnel, she said.
“It seems like it’s getting worse this year,” Noll said. “Sunday afternoon, there are too many vehicles on the road. I’m not sure what the solution is. We just have to let people know what’s going on so they can make informed decisions.”
Cars also have to be stopped at the top of the road as they approach the tunnel, as part of the tunnel safety metering. Morgan said this is to prevent a backup in the tunnel, which is not just for congestion relief.
“We can’t have people stuck in the tunnel because there’s no shoulder, no pull off, so emergency vehicles can’t get through dangerous situation,” she said.
While CDOT is working on several projects to help improve I-70 corridor traffic, including widening the tunnels in Idaho Springs and encouraging people to change their peak travel time, “[Sunday] that wouldn’t have helped at all,” Morgan said.
“The approach up the hill on a normal day, even with lots of traffic, it’s not a problem, but when it’s snowy or icy that’s the end of it.”
— Thad Noll, assistant Summit County manager