A cluster of people gathered Saturday morning outside the west entrance of the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnel along Interstate 70 to watch Gov. John Hickenlooper sign a bill that will appropriate $5 million for the installation of a fire suppression system at the facility.
“It’s one small step for the Eisenhower Tunnel,” Hickenlooper said after approving the legislation before a group of transportation and local elected officials. “One giant step for the state of Colorado’s economy.”
But the money is just a down-payment on the $25 million system transportation officials say is necessary to the continuing safety of the world’s highest vehicular tunnel.
Summit County’s state Rep. Millie Hamner (D — Dillon) sponsored the bipartisan bill securing the first dollars for a project that has drawn attention from Washington.
The Eisenhower Tunnel was constructed in the 1960s and since its opening, more than 300 million vehicles have passed through the facility. Colorado Department of Transportation officials say there has never been a single fatality inside.
“We’ve had a great safety record in this tunnel,” CDOT Region 1 director Tony DeVito said.
One state transportation officials and lawmakers want to maintain. The fire suppressions system is intended to address the threat of a significant fire inside the tunnel, where a blaze can climb to uncontrollable temperatures faster than emergency vehicles can respond.
The system, which will be installed in both bores, is intended to keep those temperatures low enough to allow teams to get into the tunnel to fight the fire.
“The heat is what we need to keep down,” DeVito said. “The parameters we’re looking for are to keep a certain heat level. Then our trucks can get in there and it buys us time, if it is a big fire, for secondary response from Silverthorne or Georgetown.”
But it’s a big bill for the cash-strapped transportation department, which is struggling to keep up with the cost of maintaining Colorado’s existing highways with little money left over for new construction work.
Elected officials from Congressman Jared Polis to the governor himself have called the fire suppression system a project of vital importance to the continuing safety of one of Colorado and the country’s most important economic arteries — Interstate 70, the primary skier route between Denver and the mountain resort communities, passes through the Eisenhower Tunnel.
“A closing or long-term damage to one of these tunnels could cost Colorado billions of dollars, not only to one of Colorado’s greatest transportation assets but also to the I-70 mountain corridor communities, tourism and recreation,” CDOT executive director Don Hunt stated in a release on the bill. “Even more importantly a tunnel fire is a significant risk for the traveling public and public safety is always our top priority.”
But it is still unclear where CDOT will find the remaining $20 million needed to complete the project.
“We’re working on a few ideas,” Hickenlooper said when asked about the issue. “We’ll find it.”
Among those ideas is a new $1.5 billion CDOT reserve. The money is a one-time windfall generated by a change in the transportation department’s accounting practices. But there are communities all over Colorado, including Summit County, vying for some of that money for local projects, and it won’t be clear for at least a few more months which will get a piece of the pie.
Still, transportation leaders say the funding provided by Hamner’s bill is important, calling it seed money that will be leveraged to get additional dollars for the suppression system.
“It provides the impetus to get this critical system built,” Hunt stated.
The legislation signed Saturday also forms a Petroleum Cleanup and Redevelopment Fund, to allow petroleum contamination on the sites of former gas stations to be investigated and cleaned.
It was the second bill the governor signed in Summit County in as many days and one of six new laws sponsored by Hamner that he has approved this week.