Breakthrough time for I-70?

by Allen Best

The following appeared in the April 1, 2012 issue of Mountain Town News. For a complementary copy, which includes the full story, please write to me at allen.best@comcast.net

For years, the incessant planning meetings for Colorado’s Interstate 70 seemed like the movie in which Bill Murray plays the role of a weatherman assigned to do a story from Punxsutawney, Pa. He finds himself waking morning after morning to find it’s once again Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day on I-70 has ended:

I-70 congestion remains primarily a weekend problem, although projections see the crawl worsening and expanding into weekdays within the next decade. Photo taken just west of the Twin Tunnels on a Sunday in March.

• Work now beginning will, by October 2013, yield a new bore at the Twin Tunnels, the notorious chokepoint for traffic returning to Denver on weekends. The result of the $60 million project will yield three lanes from Idaho Springs to Floyd Hill.

• The Colorado Department of Transportation on March 16 issued a document that begins the process of drawing out the ideas of private contractors. This process may yield a public-private partnership for the corridor between the outskirts of Denver and Silverthorne. Because of the revenue that could be gained, an express lane that can be tolled at varying rates proportionate to the level of congestion might well be expected.

A new bore under the Continental Divide may also conceivably result from this process. That, however, must be labeled as speculation.

• Traffic engineers and elected officials continue to study the idea of using highway shoulders to create additional lanes of traffic segments through Clear Creek County, where the highway footprint is constrained by towns. Recent research included a trip to Minneapolis, one of many places around the country where the practice is already in use. It is described by one tour participant as a “strong maybe” for application along the I-70 corridor, although concerns remain about emergency access.

Guarded optimism is being expressed by elected and appointed officials along the I-70 corridor that a somewhat fragile consensus will remain.

“If it holds together, traveling I-70 on weekends will be a heck of a lot better 5 years or 10 years than it is now,” says Kevin O’Malley, chairman of the Clear Creek County Board of Commissioners, the county that bears the largest brunt of the weekend traffic. “Things are moving. It’s really pretty amazing.”

Officials give high marks to state officials, both in the administration of former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and now with Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“Ten, 12 years ago, we couldn’t get them (state officials) to pay attention to I-70. Now, we have administration pretty focused on it, to see if there is a creative way to get things done,” says Tim Gagen, town manager of Breckenridge and the I-70 corridor representative on the High Performance Transportation Enterprise. That state board was formed two years ago to examine public-private partnerships and other funding mechanisms.

On some Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons, I-70’s stop-and-go traffic can extend for 40 miles. By 7 p.m. on a Sunday in February, it might look like this.

STATES ACROSS THE  NATION are realizing the need to find new and more equitable ways to pay for surface transportation. The Economist magazine, in a far-ranging essay called “Life in the Slow Lane” in the April 28, 2011, issue (www.economist.com/node/18620944?story_id=18620944 pointed out that in the United States “total public spending on transport and water infrastructure has fallen steadily since the 1960s and now stands at 2.4 percent of GDP.” The magazine says Europe invests 5 percent of GDP in infrastructure, and China 9 percent.

In Colorado, demand and traffic growth have outstripped revenue increases. The state last raised its gas tax in 1991 and its diesel tax in 1992. The state government’s transportation budget is currently $1.1 billion, barely enough to keep up with maintenance, let alone plan for growth.

Demographers project Colorado’s population, now 5.1 million, will grow 48 percent by 2035. State planners also expect that we’ll be driving ever more, a 61 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita. This is despite a downturn in driving in the last several years across the nation.

Congestion-tiered tolls are a key piece of the future, most analysts say. So are public-private partnerships, or P3s.

A bill introduced in the Colorado Legislature by former State Sen. Chris Romer two years ago broached the subject of I-70 tolls—and aroused catcalls before being killed.

But Romer’s mistake perhaps was to paint with too broad a brush. A more delicate approach is already evident in Colorado, where a 7-mile express lane can be found along I-25 between downtown Denver and the turnoff to Boulder. Tolls range between 50 cents and $4, depending on level of congestion. Buses always get to use the express lane.

The plan moving forward is to extend the express lane all the way to Boulder. The road, constructed in the early 1960s, was originally tolled. The state’s High Performance Transportation Enterprise authority expects to have a short list of potential partners on this project by late May. Tolling revenues are expected to deliver about 30 percent of the revenues needed to complete the new express lanes.

I-70 wiggles through Clear Creek County, along with the eponymous creek and a frontage road for local traffic. Conventional expansion requires moving mountains.

Unlike the daily congestion in that corridor, I-70 has a more complicated and difficult pattern of congestion. Truly distressing traffic is largely limited to two or at most three days per week. But summer months—when the corridor has the highest levels of use—offer the greatest challenges, because the congestion is not as time specific.

I-70 also offers more challenging terrain. Consider that the apex of the nation’s nearly 47,000 miles of interstate highway is at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel Complex. But the tightness of Clear Creek valley and the pre-existence of the old mining towns of Idaho Springs, Georgetown and Silverplume also present special challenges.

The highway also challenges users. Last winter, my nephew, a 20-something money manager in downtown Denver, wrote to me in exasperation. He and his wife, a scientist, had hoped to go skiing in Summit County one Saturday, but after two hours they had turned around. A daily user of light rail in Denver, he said they would be happy to pay to use a high-speed train.

What, he wondered, was taking Colorado so long?

EVEN BEFORE THE  final segment through Glenwood Canyon was completed in 1993, highway engineers began tinkering with how to increase capacity. A public-participation process in 1997 yielded an emphatic “monorail” as the solution, but the administration of Gov. Bill Owens, in a formal programmatic environmental impact review (PEIS) process launched in 2000, denied any such possibility with an artificial cap of $4 billion on improvements. Owens also famously dismissed the idea of a monorail as unrealistic, calling it a “Disneyland ride.”

Communities along the corridor were deeply dissatisfied with the presumed outcome of process, distrustful of state officials and wary of one another. They also perceived the PEIS that was being shaped up as vulnerable. “All you needed to tie it up for 10 years was a lawyer with a pulse and $100,000,” says O’Malley, the Clear Creek County commissioner.

A 2005 meeting in Granby forged a tenuous consensus among corridor communities and other stakeholders, such as the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited. Even more important was the 2006 gubernatorial election. Incoming Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Russell George as executive director of C-DOT. A water lawyer by training, George had been an accomplished state legislator, able to represent liberal Aspen and conservative Rifle at the same time.

Under George’s guidance, the $4 billion artificial budget cap was limited, and facilitated processes were instituted. “I can’t believe I have to hire a facilitator to take me through a process where the goal is to hire a facilitator,” is one quote savored from that time. Harmony can take just as long as fractious debate.

Idaho Springs, one of Colorado’s oldest communities, with roots to 1859, depeneds upon I-70 and travelers, but is sometimes overwhelmed by it.

A crucial part of this new process was something called context-sensitive solutions, a process articulated by landscape architect Ian McHarg’s seminal 1969 book “Design with Nature.” Context-sensitive design has been favored by the Federal Highway Administration in recent years. It seeks to engage various communities while acknowledging multiple impacts of highways. I-70 across Vail Pass, lauded for its relative sensitivity to aesthetics, is a product of that early iteration of this process. In the end, transportation remains a compromise of environmental values, aesthetics, and much more. But it starts at a different place.

The new programmatic environmental impact statement also set out a 50-year planning horizon. Perhaps ironically, this longer time horizon made the short-term highway improvements more palatable, particularly in Clear Creek County.

Transportation officials have been contrite. “We crashed and burned pretty hard,” said Anthony “Tony” DeVito, regional transportation director for I-70, at the USA Rail Conference held in Denver in 2010. “Now,” he says, “we all realize there has to be a multi-modal approach to this corridor … We recognize we cannot build our way out of congestion.” He also said out-of-the-box funding ideas were needed.

After heartburn and hiccups, kumbaya and $430 million, the programmatic environmental impact statement, or PEIS, was completed in 2011 and a record-of-decision signed.

The PEIS was notable for what it freely admitted it didn’t know: the effects of climate change, the prospects of peak oil, and just what kind of futuristic technology might be suitable for the I-70 corridor in this 50 year vision after the highway improvements had been maximized.

For that matter, the document admitted it didn’t know where the money would come from for the highway capacity improvements, with a total cost of $8 billion, much less the presumably far more expensive automated guideway system, i.e. a monorail.

Passenger cars on mag-lev lines hover over steel rails, eliminating friction. But despite the technology being more than a century old, there are relatively few commercial applications in the world. The most notable is a 17-mile segment in Shanghai, China. Photo from Internet

THEN CAME THE SURPRISE proposal from Parsons, the international engineering, construction and management firm. In July 2011, the company submitted a plan for phased improvements between C-470 and Silverthorne, and extending into the future, to Eagle. One centerpiece of the proposal was the addition of tolled express lanes based on congestion pricing, as well as a transit system for the long term. The proposal, according to C-DOT, called for existing lanes of I-70 to remain free to all vehicles.

FOR THE FULL STORY about I-70 and an accompanying story bout the monorail, please write to me to request the April 1, 2012, issue of Mountain Town News.

 

 

 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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