Miller: Unzipped and unglued on I-70
September 2, 2010
The release of a study last week on the potential effectiveness of “zipper lanes” on I-70 made me think the problem of eastbound gridlock is now in one of those insoluble and immutable categories – like Middle East peace or finding the perfectly comfortable ski boot. As someone who routinely drives in eastbound tourist traffic (I drop my son Max off in Idaho Springs every other Sunday at 6), I know well the hopeless, soul-crushing feel of inching along at .02 mph, wondering why, exactly, those people in the front can’t just speed it up, as well as when things will start to move again.
According to the study, adding a zipper lane to eastbound Interstate 70 in the mountains would cut peak-hour Sunday evening commutes in the winter from 91 minutes to 46 minutes between Silver Plume and the El Rancho exit. But travel in the single remaining westbound lane during the same window would jump from 35 minutes to 79 minutes.
Ouch. I realize the solution-seeking on I-70 isn’t going to focus on schmucks like me who make the odd round trip at this worst-of-all-possible times, but yeah, put me down in the “firmly opposed” column on zipper lanes. Even looking at it objectively, it doesn’t seem to make much sense: sacrificing the time of one group of folks (westbounders – who lose 44 minutes) for the convenience of others (eastbounders – who save 45 minutes). Having been personally embroiled in all manner of jacked-up conditions on this exact strip of highway innumerable times over the past 30 years, it’s not much of a stretch for me to speculate that, $170,000 study aside, the zipper lane thing is a cluster-you-know-what in the making. The presence of some giant vehicle moving around medians; the jumble of cars, semis, plow trucks trying to negotiate this shifting landscape; the very real possibility of fender-benders and other incidents gumming up the works even further … the very thought of it all makes we want to save up and buy a helicopter. And my own survey – conducted for free in my mind and taking only about 17 seconds – tells me unequivocally the reversible zipper lane idea is a bad one. It’s up there with New Coke and the Edsel, Palin for President or some new Leno show.
Which is not to say it wasn’t worth a try – this just isn’t one of the winning ideas. In the absence of the huge sums of money and political capital necessary to either widen the Interstate or build some fancy high-speed rail, smaller solutions like this are really the only feasible way of chipping away at the problem. And it is a problem, make no mistake. The number of days of gridlock on I-70 may be nothing near what those damned to commute on LA’s 405 or Houston’s I-610 must endure, but for the Colorado ski and tourism industry, this has got to be one of the single-biggest deterrents out there to spending money in the mountains. If I didn’t have to make that drive when I do, I would never do it. Which is to say that, were I a Front Ranger, I would never come skiing up here. The fact that people still do, knowing full well the hell they’re going to be trapped in trying to get home, never ceases to amaze me. But how long will people continue to make these trips, especially as the population continues to grow and traffic gets worse and worse?
So, if not zipper lanes, what, then? All manner of little fixes are already being tried, from better communication through signs and websites to more incentives for folks to stay later on Sundays to cracking down on unchained semis that can exacerbate the problem. Tweaking the twin tunnels and doing some lane-straightening where possible will also help. But there’s one other thing I haven’t heard much talk about that could help divert a fair amount of traffic off the stretch at those worst times: frontage roads. Reducing the pinch points on these and making them work better for those in the know could really help – although I’ll guess some of the residents and businesses along these roads may not be thrilled with the additional traffic. Fact is, though, it’s already there, so why not make it more efficient?
I’ve only got another year or two of my Idaho Springs Sunday trips, after which I will shun eastbound I-70 on Sundays like Phoenix in July. For the rest, well, I can only wonder how long the magic of the mountains will continue to trump the terror of the traffic.
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Summit Daily editor Alex Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 668-4618.