Gov. Polis signs bill requiring study of allowing hazmat vehicles through Eisenhower Tunnel
White knuckles may soon be a thing of the past for truckers carrying hazardous materials through the mountain corridor.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill into law requiring the Colorado Department of Transportation to conduct a study assessing the feasibility of allowing the transportation of hazardous materials through the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels, and under what conditions it would be allowed.
While some are still concerned about potential safety issues, support for launching the study was widespread at the state Legislature with unanimous votes in favor of the bill in both the House and Senate. The bill also had support from members of the trucking industry looking to improve safety for their drivers.
“This brings everybody together for a formalized, detailed, science-based conversation about it,” said Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association. “What the bill did was formalize the process of identifying the goal posts, and bringing the people with expertise into the same room to make those determinations. … It’s been a long discussion, and we’re trying to make a very measured step forward in that discussion.”
Now that the bill has passed, CDOT will begin an extensive research process with hopes of providing a final risk analysis study by the end of next year. As part of the study, CDOT will gather input from a number of organizations within Summit County, including the county itself, Summit Fire & EMS, the towns of Dillon and Silverthorne, Keystone Resort, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and a number of others outside the county.
Once completed, state lawmakers are hoping the study provides a conclusive analysis of levels and types of risk in regards to eastbound versus westbound hazmat transportation, potential limitations on days or times it would be allowed, and whether the transportation of gasoline, diesel and petroleum should have different requirements from other hazardous materials. In addition, the study will look at what improvements could be made to Interstate 70 and Loveland Pass to reduce risks.
For officials, the priority is emphasizing public safety.
“As a public safety organization, that’s our sole concern — making sure whatever we allow doesn’t create safety hazards,” said Steve Lipsher, spokesman for Summit Fire & EMS. “If we can be confident that any changes in the laws also come with appropriate safeguards, that might be workable.”
Lipsher noted that the biggest concern in allowing hazmat trucks through the tunnel is the potential for a big fire, which given the length of the tunnels could mean serious difficulty for people in danger trying to escape and for emergency workers trying to get to the blaze. In 2016, CDOT installed a $25 million fire suppression system in the tunnel, though the system isn’t equipped to handle a large-scale hazmat fire.
“If something happens in the middle of it, it could be a real danger to other motorists, to anyone involved in the incident and also to emergency response workers who are going to try and solve the crisis,” continued Lipsher.
While Loveland Pass is much less confined and easier to access for emergency workers, it comes with its fair share of dangers. And for truck drivers, the narrow switchbacks and steep drop-offs can be especially treacherous.
“Going over Loveland Pass, it’s one of the most hazardous roadways for trucking in the country,” said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association. “A lot of that’s because you’ve got steep downgrades, switchbacks, weather that comes in fast, winds up to 100 mph and almost no shoulders. You add those things together, it’s not only very challenging, but it’s very physically challenging on a driver.”
Fulton said that a major concern was drivers physically exerting themselves on the roadway, especially those who travel from sea level up to almost 12,000 feet in elevation and have to spend 40 minutes outside putting chains on their tires in low oxygen.
The study will be completed by Dec. 1, 2020, at which point state officials will have to decide whether or not they want to move forward with allowing the transportation of hazardous materials through the tunnels.
“I think it’s a study that needs to happen,” said Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. “We have to find other viable routes for hazmat. I’m curious to see how this turns out, with the influx of traffic especially. I think all eyes are going to be on this study.”
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