VAIL — A monster snowstorm that hit the Rockies at the end of January had effects far beyond the eight- and 10-hour trips to Denver reported by many motorists. The storm also prompted the Colorado Department of Transportation to try some new things to manage both snowfall and traffic.
The storm on the last weekend of January followed several other storms that piled feet of fresh powder on the slopes. That snow drew Front Range skiers by the thousands.
When the big storm hit, and stayed, Jan. 26, plow crews working Interstate 70 couldn’t keep up, and many drivers were caught unprepared, lacking adequate tires or chains for their cars. Many of those cars ended up stopped on the steep climbs between Vail and the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel and couldn’t get started. The combination created massive traffic backups.
That storm, in turn, prompted complaints from both motorists and ski towns about the state’s ability to keep the highways open reliably. In response, state transportation officials started work on a plan for the coming winter and beyond.
THE PLAN FOR THIS WINTER
Part of the longer-term work was presented Tuesday to the Vail Town Council. Michelle Hansen, an engineer for Stolfus Associates, a consulting firm of the transportation department, briefed council members about a plan to expand the chain-up station for big trucks on eastbound I-70 near the Vail golf course.
Hansen said the plan — with an estimated cost of $4.5 million — would add another 1,500 feet to the existing lane, with the extension stretching west of the current space. That extension will create room for about another 15 large trucks bringing the capacity to 39 vehicles.
That project will require a bit of road widening, Hansen said. It will also require construction of several hundred feet of retaining wall between the interstate and the frontage road.
CAN WE DETER TRUCKS?
Council members were generally supportive of the plan. But council member Greg Moffet asked Hansen if the state could take other action to keep trucks away from the base of Vail Pass on snowy days.
Hansen said that’s more difficult than it sounds. A parking area at Dotsero is only used when the highway is closed, she said. And asking truckers to chain up earlier creates other problems, she added.
While the expanded chain-up station won’t be available until the winter of 2015-16, state transportation officials have new strategies and equipment on the way for the coming winter.
Tracy Trulove, a Glenwood Springs-based spokeswoman for the transportation department, said the state will again try limiting the number of vehicles allowed to enter the interstate in Summit County, releasing them in intervals. That could tie up traffic in Frisco and Silverthorne, but may help people from stalling out on the uphill climb to the tunnels.
Beyond metering, Trulove said state officials are getting more, newer plow equipment. On days when massive storms hit, the department will pull plow drivers from nearby areas.
“It may be snowing hard in Summit County, but not in Glenwood,” Trulove said. “We can pull those guys to help.”
NEW I-70 INCIDENT COMMANDER
Then there’s the matter of coordination. Trulove said the transportation department recently has hired a full-time incident commander for the I-70 corridor. It will be that person’s job to put plow drivers, cops and others where they can do the most good to keep traffic moving.
Beyond that, the department is working on ways to make “snow socks,” a temporary traction device for cars, more available to drivers who might not have adequate tires for stop-and-go driving on 7 percent uphill grades.
But, she said, it will be difficult, at best, to station police or transportation department employees at eastbound on-ramps to check cars for adequate tires.
That said, Trulove said the I-70 mountain corridor is a “hot topic all the time” for state transportation planners. “We’re still trying to come up with ways to manage traffic,” she added.
After the Tuesday presentation, council member Dale Bugby said he was pleased with what he saw.
“This is the first I’ve seen of (the transportation department) trying to make things better for Vail Pass,” Bugby said. “It’s a dangerous situation now.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com and @scottnmiller.