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Tunnel trouble ahead

The Denver Post/Helen H. Richardson

The start of a large-scale highway project at the Twin Tunnels expected to cause a traffic mess on Interstate 70 next year, was pushed back from mid-March to April 1, sparing the spring break crowds a painful commute to Denver.

The Colorado Department of Transportation will launch the seven-month, $60 million widening project – expanding the highway to three eastbound lanes through the Twin Tunnels to reduce congestion – the day after the Easter holiday, which typically marks the unofficial end of the peak of ski season.

But the delay was a safety decision, not a business decision, officials said.

“March has the highest number of call- outs for emergency (services),” CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson said. “There are a lot of people from out of state who don’t know how to drive in the corridor. Listening to various emergency providers, March is a very hard month to impact traffic.”

Local emergency officials say the roads seem to be more dangerous in the fall and spring when warmer weather and wetter snow produce slicker conditions.

“My belief is that the early season and late-season snowstorms are the most treacherous,” Lake Dillon Fire Rescue spokesman Steve Lipsher said.

The widening project will cause 30-minute traffic stops in both directions and a full closure of eastbound I-70 lanes in the area near Idaho Springs, forcing traffic onto an upgraded two-lane frontage road with a 35 mph speed limit.

While the visitors who book vacations through March will avoid the worst impacts of the work, some locals are concerned about the effect the project will have on April business.

“I am sure most of our community, who thrive on tourism, will be happy to hear the reconsideration to move the project to April 1 rather than mid-March,” Breckenridge Resort Managers president Toby Babich stated in an email to the Daily. “Hopefully CDOT can push back a couple more weeks to allow for the (April) tourism building efforts made by so many to be realized this year by not creating a difficult situation for our guests.”

But the delayed April 1 start date is already going to put crews on a tight schedule to finish the widening work by the slated Oct. 31 completion date. Transportation officials are pushing to have the project finished in a single summer construction season.

“It represents another challenge,” Wilson said. “A big challenge for us.”

As early bookings for the spring ski and summer seasons begin coming in, the local tourism industry is priming to prepare its guests to expect and work around the highway project.

Local officials have discussed advising visitors to book later flights and to plan to leave on Mondays rather than Sundays, when outgoing traffic to Denver peaks.

“I think it’s very important for all the resorts, Breckenridge and all the Western Slope resorts, to have great information for our guests to minimize their inconvenience during this roadwork, which will obviously, in the future, make for much more simple and stress-free travel to and from the Front Range,” Breckenridge Town Councilman and time-share resort co-owner Mike Dudick said.

Highway 285, a longer route running from Denver up into Summit County from the south, likely won’t be an ideal alternative to I-70 next summer. The back road is up for its own set of construction projects.

“It’s a longer trip,” Wilson said. “Plus we’re working on 285 through South Park. We’re paving it and we’re going to widen it and build passing lanes.”

Hwy. 285 would also put westbound travelers onto Highway 9 coming out of Breckenridge, where there will be another widening project impacting traffic.

The two-lane shoulderless Twin Tunnels form a bottleneck just east of Idaho Springs on the I-70 mountain corridor that frequently slows eastbound traffic returning to Denver from the mountains on Sunday afternoons during peak seasons.

The widening project, approved in October of last year, will increase the size of the eastbound bore, allowing the road to be expanded to three lanes through to the base of Floyd Hill, where the highway grows to three lanes for the rest of the trip into Denver. Crews will also smooth the sharp curves in the area, which pose a hazard for heavy commercial vehicles and tend to slow down traffic.

During blasting operations in the tunnel, traffic will be stopped in both directions for up to 30 minutes at a time. Transportation officials say they’ll try to avoid blasting during the Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon peak travel times. A full closure of the eastbound lanes of I-70 will be in place through duration of the project.