Buckling down on 1-70 corridor options
Even the sternest critics of the Colorado Department of Transportation, the ones who call it the department of pavement, concede that Tuesday’s “listening forum” about Interstate 70 will be unusual – almost unprecedented.
At that 13-hour forum in Silverthorne, CDOT boss Tom Norton and Bill Jones, regional chief of the Federal Highway Administration, are scheduled to hear from truckers and bicyclists, the Sierra Club and Club 20, and several dozen other governments, trade associations and political advocacy groups interested in changes to Colorado’s most important east-west artery.
“Is it important? Absolutely,” said Clear Creek County Commissioner JoAnn Sorenson. “They want to listen to us directly and our thoughts instead of having them filtered by a study.”
This broad, front-end-loaded approach, called the I-70 Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), has been used only a few times in the nation and never in Colorado. Unlike most environmental impact studies, which review specific proposals for maybe six or seven miles of highway construction, this one is reviewing a wide range of options for a long corridor, the 144 miles from Golden to Glenwood Springs.
Already costing $23 million and six years in preparation, the PEIS has examined virtually everything from the narrow-gauge train technology that was used for the first penetration of the Colorado mountains 120 years ago to futuristic monorails.
While old, coal-burning trains and alternative routes into the mountains through South Park are off the table, many other alternatives remain. Those alternatives come in two broad categories.
One category involves upgrades to the existing highway. Options include new climbing lanes on steep sections, such as between Georgetown and Silverthorne; adding a new tunnel in the Eisenhower Tunnel complex as well as tunnels east of Idaho Springs and west of Vail; and widening the highway to six lanes in Clear Creek County.
The second category involves implementing mass transit. Ideas include an electric-powered rail, dedicated lanes for rail-guided buses, or a monorail, which the Colorado Department of Transportation calls an advanced guideway system.
Many, perhaps most, people testifying on Tuesday will call for highway expansion while leaving the door open for mass transit. The delicate differences will be in priorities. Money is a major constraint. Transportation projections say I-70 will get only $1 billion during the next 20 years, and the least ambitious alternative, “minimal action” highway improvements, would cost $1.2 billion. Mass transit systems could cost up to $5.6 billion.
A draft PEIS, to be issued next year, will contain the analysis of the last several years and will also contain what CDOT thinks should be done. A final decision on choices is not expected until at least 2005, and even then, more study will be necessary. However, the subsequent site-specific environmental impact statement will be less elaborate than usual, because so much of the analysis is already being done.
Even the most ardent advocates of mass transit concede some highway improvements will be necessary. Among these advocates is Clear Creek County, which bears the largest brunt of I-70 as it crowds through Idaho Springs, Georgetown, and other communities, spewing both noise and exhaust.
County residents want improvements east of Idaho Springs, partly to accommodate the growing traffic to the Central City-Blackhawk casinos. Clear Creek also foresees smoothing of pinch points, such as where travelers from Winter Park join I-70 at Empire and often cause traffic to slow.
Also, Clear Creek County wants money devoted to technological solutions as well as traffic-moving strategies, such as those that could accommodate trucks more efficiently. Those smaller changes should occur before a more general widening of I-70 to the Eisenhower Tunnel, said Sorenson, the county commissioner.
Summit County more broadly endorses the full range of highway improvements to Golden, including six-laning from C-470 to the Eisenhower Tunnel. However, Summit County is allied with Eagle County in foreseeing a de-emphasis of Denver International Airport to the mountain economy and a growing importance of Eagle County Regional Airport.
“They need a transportation plan that connects Summit County and Eagle County, so people can conceivably stay in Breckenridge and fly out of Eagle County Regional,” said County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom. “DIA is not the center of the universe.”
The bottom-line position for Summit County, and others, is to do what’s necessary to expand the car-carrying capacity of the existing highway in the short term, but not to let those modifications preclude future mass-transit solutions.
Because the “footprint” for I-70 is so narrow, there is not enough room in some places for both mass transit and additional traffic lanes, at least not without moving mountains, which would be both expensive and environmentally dubious. With this in mind, one idea is to dedicate new lanes between Golden and Silverthorne to buses – lanes that could be converted to a monorail or some other mass-transit technology in the future.
That’s the position of Bert Melcher, who represents the Sierra Club. Active for 40 years in battles over I-70, he was influential in getting the original route from Silverthorne to Vail removed from shorter, straighter Red Buffalo Pass, leaving primitive lands intact. Now, while he sees the need to “get people out of their cars,” he sees it happening in phases.
In Eagle, County Commissioner Michael Gallagher calls for a higher immediate priority for mass transit, one connecting Denver International Airport with Eagle County Regional Airport, two of Colorado’s busiest airports during winter months.
“We have to think beyond today, and we have to think beyond pavement,” said Gallagher. A monorail system should be seen as the first link between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, he believes.
If monorail advocates seem to be thinking big, it is the only way to think when considering the I-70 corridor 20 to 50 years from now, they say. It will be impossible to add enough pavement to keep up with demand, a position that CDOT planners concede.
But can you have your cake and eat it too? Does it make sense to accommodate more cars on I-70, putting off the drive to find a mass transit solution? Most organizations seem to be hedging their bets. Typical seems to be the position adopted by the Vail town government.
There, the council has been fulminating about the noise pollution from I-70 but still wants to see additional highway improvements, particularly an increase in the number of cars that can be accommodated in Dowd Canyon. That canyon is projected to accommodate 110,000 cars a day by the year 2025 – roughly comparable to the traffic now carried by I-25 north and south of metropolitan Denver.
To increase traffic volume, state engineers, in one alternative, envision a tunnel through Dowd Butte, accommodating three west bound lanes of traffic, straightening the existing highway to make it safer and also faster and making three lanes for east-bound traffic.
Overall, the ski industry’s position emphasizes short-term solutions.
“For the short term, we definitely need to increase the capacity,” said Rob Perlman, president of Colorado Ski Country USA. “We’re not at all opposed to looking at longer-term situations, but we don’t think that should delay us in looking at the short term.”
If even short-term funding is in doubt, the question is that much larger for long-term improvements. The federal government paid for 90 percent of the original highway but now will pay for no more than half, and perhaps less – and that was before the federal government began plummeting into debt in the past three years.
This suggests additional state and local funding sources will be necessary. Ski Country’s Perlman says his group is not opposed in principal to tolling, as is envisioned by one alternative. Ski areas have not talked about whether they would be willing to pick up some costs.
The broader strategy, Perlman says, should be to persuade more Coloradans of the economic importance of the I-70 corridor to the tourism industry, Colorado’s second largest employer.
Eagle County’s Gallagher also sees a need for a well-structured campaign to sell Coloradans on kicked-up taxes to pay for transportation, not just for the I-70 corridor.
“It comes down to redefining “we,'” he said.
Possible I-70 Improvements:
– Widening: Creating six lanes from Floyd Hill to the Eisenhower Tunnel and west of Vail at Dowd Canyon, including climbing lanes and new tunnels east of Idaho Springs, through the Continental Divide and west of Vail. Cost: up to $2 billion.
– Widening plus: Same as above, but creating two lanes in the I-70 median that would be reversible to accommodate either eastbound or westbound traffic, as needs dictate. Lanes could become toll lanes or high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
– Bus lanes: Creating two-way bus lanes from Golden to the Eisenhower Tunnel, and a narrower eastbound bus-center lane from Silverthorne to the tunnel.
– Electric-powered rail: Building a new electric-powered rail from Golden to Dowd Junction, and using the existing Union Pacific track from Dowd Junction to Eagle County Regional Airport. Cost: $4.4 billion.
– Monorail: Called an advanced guideway system, it would run from Golden to Eagle County Regional Airport. Estimated cost: $5.6 billion.
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