What ruined Sunday’s commute in Summit County? Events, snowfall and Google Maps to blame
Sunday was especially bad.
Some have blamed it on a fresh round of snow leading into beautiful weekend weather. Others think the hugely popular International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge had something to do with it.
The mass of Colorado ski areas certainly owns a share of the responsibility for Summit County’s weekend traffic woes, as resort guests spilled out onto the roads and plugged up Interstate 70 across the mountain corridor Sunday afternoon.
With all the powder-seekers, the snow sculputures, ESPN’s X Games going off in Aspen, regular traffic from the Dillon Ice Castles and the usual mix of snowmobilers and hunters, navigating one’s way around Summit County was a lesson in frustration on Sunday, even though there wasn’t a single wreck reported on the interstate that day.
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On a popular Facebook forum, one Summit County woman described the traffic as “insane,” while another likened it to having Christmas, New Year’s and the Presidents Day weekend all rolled into one.
“I have lived here over 15 years and I have never seen anything like this,” a third woman wrote only to have her comments echoed by a fourth who said she’s been here even longer and “each year is stupider than the last.”
What exactly is drawing the large crowds might be up for debate, but the numbers are staggering as a high volume of traffic frequently leaves I-70 struggling to drain all of the cars, pickup trucks, SUVs and semitrailers headed east to Denver and the Front Range.
Based on figures provided by the Colorado Department of Transportation, this weekend was particularly bad for travel with 54,730 vehicles passing through the Eisenhower Tunnel on Sunday alone, only 3,000 shy of the single-day record.
“The bottom line is that our county is becoming busier and busier regardless of the season, date or time of year,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “We are not only experiencing growth, but we’re experiencing a tremendous influx from the Denver area.”
The sheriff wasn’t offering up anything that most locals, law enforcement personnel and state transportation officials don’t already know: Summit County’s roads were never designed to handle this kind of traffic.
“We have no more capacity,” CDOT spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said of the I-70 corridor. “This is a conversation that’s not new to anybody.”
And so routes back up across the county.
On Sunday, reported travel times from Dillon to Colorado 470 — typically about a 50-minute commute — went well over two hours. That traffic also caused a domino effect of local congestion, as drivers waiting to get onto I-70 impeded main arteries in Dillon, Frisco, Silverthorne and Breckenridge.
Making matters worse, heavy weekend traffic was also reported on French Creek and Wellington Road in Breckenridge even though these roads cut through residential areas. That has some locals complaining that GPS navigation apps, like Google Maps, have been directing that traffic into Breckenridge’s residential neighborhoods as a way around the highway jams.
Breckenridge Police Chief Jim Baird said it’s common for folks to seek out easier ways around town during peak times and to use smartphone apps to help them do it. Whether that strategy is effective is a different question, however.
“My experience is that this normally depends on where you’re going or trying to park, and where you’re coming from, as well as what time of day,” Baird said, adding that most navigation apps offer multiple routing options and it’s likely those apps did push some drivers into Breckenridge’s neighborhoods on Sunday, at least until those streets also became saturated with cars.
The chief said that Breckenridge police have a traffic management plan, particularly for when people are trying to leave after a day on the slopes. The department response can vary depending on the volume of vehicles and pedestrians in town, but one of the biggest goals is to keep traffic flowing.
The sheriff and state transportation officials say there’s really not much they can do about the navigation apps driving motorists off highways and the interstate, though.
Short of closing a road, CDOT has little control over the decisions people make about which routes to take and the navigation apps that suggest them, Trulove said.
She said CDOT has reached out to Google in hopes of trying to work out some of the kinks in its navigation software — like directing motorists over a closed mountain pass in the winter — but has had little luck so far.
Rather, it’s just a fact of life that when the highways and interstate are jam-packed, drivers are going to look for alternatives, Trulove said. The state agency meters cars getting onto the interstate and at the tunnel with timed lights, but that’s a safety measure more than a means for reducing volume.
At the same time, FitzSimons said there’s little the sheriff’s office can do other than continue encouraging people to car pool, ask locals to avoid traveling at peak times and try to ensure that everyone drives as safely as possible so traffic jams don’t become car wrecks.
Trulove said she sees some hope on the horizon with advances in autonomous vehicles and smartcar technology. However, state transportation funding remains tight and, for the time being, drivers who “decide to roll the dice” by traveling I-70 at peak times are going to run the risk of getting stuck in traffic for two-plus hours — with or without a navigation app.
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