Public shows initial support for Twin Tunnels widening project
summit daily news
IDAHO SPRINGS – Colorado Department of Transportation officials got questions and positive feedback from the public at an open house meeting for the proposed Twin Tunnels widening project Tuesday evening in Idaho Springs.
With one exception, those who attended the meeting were supportive of and curious about the details of the proposed project that would expand the eastbound tunnel bore to accommodate a third lane.
“I drive (Interstate 70) every weekend, and I see where it’s backed up and where it opens up,” said Denverite Lin Perkin, who owns a second home near Bakerville. “And it opens up when it goes to three lanes.”
Another attendee, who participated in the I-70 coalition, said the project seemed in line with stakeholder feedback given during a lengthy analysis of possible corridor solutions that concluded earlier this year.
However, though the proposal drew general support from those living in the area, it also fueled concerns about possible environmental impacts and effects on local roads, bike paths and intersections. Citizens at the meeting also asked about the potential consequences of new bottlenecks or safety hazards further downhill created by releasing the traffic that once slowed down at the tunnels.
“We know we’re not going to fix the corridor with this project,” CDOT region 1 director Tony DeVito said in response to scrutiny. “But we’ve got to start somewhere.”
The project, as proposed, would widen I-70 eastbound to three lanes from Idaho Springs to the base of Floyd Hill, enlarge the eastbound Twin Tunnel bore, soften some of the sharper curves on the east side of the tunnels allowing for higher speed limits and cost the state a cold $60 million – money officials say is available.
CDOT’s top managers on the project said they “felt confident” funding for the widening project would come through, but carefully floated the idea of tolling the new lane through the tunnel.
“In the worst traffic conditions, (there) might be a lane that operates a little bit better, but you might have to pay (to use it),” CDOT project manager Jim Bemelen said of the tolling option. “It’s a choice: pay a little bit and get where you’re going quicker or stay where you are – (but that) might be bumper to bumper (traffic).”
If funding is approved, the proposed widening project will be vetted through an environmental assessment process that could begin as early as next month.
The area is a known migration corridor for wildlife and sits alongside Clear Creek. CDOT officials said potential impacts of the project on both wildlife and water will be investigated in the next year.
If approved next year, the project will require traffic to be rerouted around the tunnels along a narrow frontage road to allow crews to work around the clock.
“This detour’s not going to be fun,” Bemelen told the group at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s very narrow, with steep banks into the creek and in some places almost vertical rock … it’s going to be backed up.”
Traffic would be limited to 35 – 45 miles per hour on the frontage road detour.
But the timing of work on the project is yet to be decided. Crews might be limited to working during shoulder seasons so the highway could be reopened for peak season Sunday traffic or work could be allowed to continue for months at a time, forcing peak season traffic to use the detour, but ensuring a faster finish – the option that seemed to be better received by the crowd Tuesday.
I-70 runs two sometimes very slow eastbound lanes from the Eisenhower Tunnel to the base of Floyd Hill, but experts and locals say the notorious Twin Tunnels bottleneck is particularly problematic because the narrow tunnels scare drivers.
“Folks realize the tunnels are constricted and tend to slow down,” Bemenlen said. “From afar, it looks like you’re driving right into side of a mountain. People hit the brakes.”
The new eastbound tunnel would be not only wider but also taller, giving drivers more confidence going in, he said.
In addition, CDOT plans to soften sharp curves on the east side of the Tunnels, allowing speed limits currently set at 45 mph to be increased to 55 or 65.
People unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting are encouraged to submit comments and questions on the project to CDOT. A public hearing on the project will be held in June or July of next year.
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