Colorado Department of Transportation project aims to reduce I-70 closures near the tunnels this winter

Interstate 70 is a critical travel and shipping route for Colorado's economy, and the tunnels under the Continental Divide can be a chokepoint

Pictured here on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, the Eisenhower–Edwin C. Johnson Memorial Tunnel is celebrating a major milestone in Colorado’s history. The Eisenhower bore (westbound) was completed in 1973, while the Johnson bore (eastbound) finished in 1979 and is named for Edwin C. Johnson, a governor and U.S. Senator who lobbied for an Interstate Highway to be built across Colorado.
Liz Copan /

Every hour the Interstate 70 mountain corridor is closed the state’s economy takes an almost $2 million hit, according to Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shoshana Lew.

But that’s only part of the reason why the opening of a new, updated operations center at the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnels — where I-70 crosses beneath the Continental Divide — is so important to the transportation department as winter approaches.

“Not only do closures delay important deliveries and transportation of goods, it also has a real impact on the livelihood of our travelers, which cannot be summed up by a figure,” Lew said in a Nov. 7 news release.

The upgraded technology, including installation of fiber optic cables and new cameras and screens, will reportedly help improve response times and safety. The project also included replacing decades-old copper wire at the operation center, the release states.

The cameras and monitors will allow the transportation department to zoom all the way into the roadway, up to 2 miles away from the tunnels, to detect even small debris such as nails, Lew said.

That technology allows Colorado Department of Transportation crews to remove potential hazards from the roadway before they develop into larger problems, according to the news release.

It also allows the transportation department to zoom in on incidents to better document and report what is going on, Lew said. The technology allows operators to see how many passengers are in a vehicle, license plate numbers and more, the release states.

“This helps aid our first responders, including CDOT maintainers, as they respond to an incident,” Lew said. “… They are going to have more details prior to approaching the scene that will help them know what they will need ahead of time to help quickly clear the incident.”

Snowplows sit off to the side of Interstate 70 on Saturday, just west of the Eisenhower Tunnel before Silverthorne.

Colorado State Patrol Chief Matthew Packard said the technology upgrades within the tunnels will allow for real-time coordination and collaborative responses to traffic incidents along the I-70 corridor.

Packard noted that the technology aims to reduce the timeframe of partial and complete closures, allowing for better movement of people and freight. The improved capabilities at the operations center should, when coupled with proper vehicle equipment and driving habits, “help us avoid serious human and economic consequences,” he said.

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New maintenance garage bays on the west side of the tunnel will help crews mobilize and clear I-70 quicker as maintainers will no longer have to move snow off their equipment, something they frequently had to do at the tunnels in the past, according to the news release. 

So, as snow continues to fall, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s maintainers at the tunnel will be prepped and ready to go, the release states. John Lorme, the transportation department’s director of maintenance, noted in the release that construction at the operations center was completed just ahead of winter.

“Travelers should expect to see snow on a more frequent basis along this corridor any day now and should start preparing for winter driving now,” Lorme said. “It’s critical that all motorists check their tires or invest in new snow tires ahead of the season and get familiar with Colorado’s Chain and Traction Laws.”

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