Trolling for fatal flaws in I-70 plans
New study casts doubts about feasibility of new tunnel
by Allen Best
I-70 CORRIDOR, Colo. – A new traffic and revenue study for Interstate 70 triggered by an unsolicited proposal from Parsons Transportation several years ago again delivers a familiar bottom line: there are no easy fixes to growing congestion.
Among the alternatives studied by a consultant to the Colorado Department of Transportation were extensive three-laning of the highway, combined with boring of a new tunnel under the Continental Divide parallel to the existing Eisenhower/Johnson bores.
The cost of $4.5 to $5 billion is more than triple the annual budget for the Colorado Department of Transportation. The agency currently has $1.4 to $1.5 billion to spend on building and repairing roads across Colorado.
That cost of $4.5 to $5 billion is also within shouting distance of what were previously seen as the astronomical costs of high-speed rail for the corridor.
In its unsolicited proposal, Parsons Transportation offered to put up its own capital for boring of a new tunnel and highway widening if it could recoup the revenues.
“Basically, it intrigued us to the point that we wanted to take the next step,” says Anthony DeVito, C-DOT’s transportation director for I-70, of the Parsons proposal.
“Obviously, they had done a traffic and revenue study in their back room. We wanted to do our own independent study.”
The study conducted for C-DOT by the Louis Berger Group examined six primary alternatives, with variations: everything from two-tolled and revisable managed lanes in the middle of the interstate at 55 mph to creation of permanent shoulder lanes and a third bore at Eisenhower/Johnson. All would involve collecting of tolls, if some only during congested periods on shoulders reconfigured into traffic lanes.
It is assumed that existing technology can be used to collect fares, using transponder and license-plate identification technology such as is already used on toll highways.
This corridor presents problems for modelers. Most studies about tolling revenues are for highways with daily commuters. I-70 to Summit County has vexing congestion two and three days per week, almost exclusively during winter and summer. The question, explains DeVito, is whether people are willing to pay more for recreational time as opposed to time spent in work commutes.
DeVito describes this study as a “baby step.” It is being shared with stakeholders such as the I-70 Coalition and elected officials and ultimately with the Colorado Transportation Commission, to see if they detect fatal flaws.
What constitutes a fatal flaw? Cost perhaps. The $4 billion to $5 billion “could be an outlay that we just can’t muster,” says DeVito.
Too, some of the proposals go beyond what was laid out in the programmatic environmental impact statement, or PEIS, which was signed in 2011. To go forward would require that the PEIS be amended.
“We think we have some answers. Whether we advance any of these into Tier 2 (NEPA study) hasn’t really been decided,” said DeVito in an interview at his office in southeast Denver in late May. “At this point, we can’t say whether they will discard any of these.”
Tim Mauck, a Clear Creek County commissioner, sees the revenue study ruling out a new tunnel at Eisenhower/Johnson and most other options.
“Alternative 6—essentially taking shoulder lanes for peak traffic all the way to the Eisenhower Tunnel—is the only one that I think demonstrated the potential to be able to generate the revenue necessary to build out the project,” he says.
But Mauck also says that widening of the Twin Tunnels east of Idaho Springs and other steps now being launched will hold congestion at bay for 15 to 20 years. That will provide time for a deeper examine of other options, including high-speed rail, as well as a better understanding of the advantages and limitations of driver-less cars.
“We have bought ourselves some time to look for the next solution,” he says.
One relatively small step has been taken to relieve congestion, and others are planned.
The eastbound bore of the Twin Tunnels was opened last autumn, a $250 million project. C-DOT estimates that travel between Denver and Summit County on weekends got 15 to 20 minutes faster last winter, excluding snowy days, however.
C-DOT next intends to harden the shoulders of I-70 for 13 miles, between Empire Junction and Floyd Hill, creating 3 lanes of traffic on weekends, with travelers in the shoulders to be charged tolls. This is projected to cost $47 million but produce even greater time savings of 30 minutes when it is implemented in 2015.
In free-flow conditions, the travel time between Silverthorne and Golden is 57 to 62 minutes. The average peak-travel time is 90 to 110 minutes. C-DOT aims to cap travel at 120 minutes, except when snow snarls traffic flow.
Early this year, Clear Creek County persuaded C-DOT to go ahead with widening of the eastbound tunnel near Idaho Springs.
“And then you have the bride at the bottom of Floyd Hill that needs to be replaced during the next five years,” Mauck explains. Another bottleneck can be addressed at the junction with Highway 40, and on down the line, smaller projects can add capacity.
That still leaves a bottleneck at the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels. Just how bad that will be, says Mauck, isn’t clear. He clearly doesn’t see unending highway expansion, but instead, high-capacity technological solutions in which Colorado could set the world’s standard.
Could the new driver-less cars be an answer? If driver error can be taken out of the equation, cars in theory could be spaced closer together to move more efficiently. Mauck questions whether the new technology can address icy and snowy roads.
A case for high-speed rail?
Miller Hudson, who lobbies on behalf of General Atomic, a proponent of a high-speed train using mag-lev technology, reports a similar take-away message of high cost and limited rewards of conventional highway solutions.
“The conclusion of four straight studies is that if you want to relieve congestion in the corridor, you have to put in some kind of transit solution,” he says, using the generic word for mass transit.
“It forces business leaders, political leaders, and policy wonks to say, ‘OK, if this is in fact the only way for us to address this problem, it’s time to get people around the table to figure out how we’re going to finance it.’”
The Berger revenue and traffic study pointed to a cost of $4.5 to $5 billion for highway improvements that start to relieve congestion. An earlier study produced a figure of $11 billion for high-speed rail between Denver and Summit County. Hudson says he thinks that latter cost can be pared, perhaps even down to $5 billion or $6 billion—roughly comparable with the cost of a new bore at Eisenhower/Johnson combined with new lanes.
The scenario Hudson lays out is the state coming up with $1 or $2 billion in funding, the federal government matching it, and then private partners coughing up the balance.
That’s just the connection between the outskirts of Denver and Summit County, he notes, “and there are a whole bunch of reasons you’d want the full segment from DIA to Eagle County Regional Airport.”
If Parsons Transportation is willing to put up the money for a new tunnel, why not let it assume the risk that it can make the numbers work?
In Hudson’s explanation, the risk really doesn’t stay with Parsons. The private company will not bet the store of its parent company, an international company worth many billions. That leaves the onus on Colorado should that idea prove unfounded. That, in his thinking, is again an argument for high-speed transit.
Hudson goes on to argue that for conventioneers in Denver, Summit County and Vail could be afternoon destinations.
Whether mountain towns want to become high-end suburbs of Denver is, however, quite another matter—and a discussion for another day.
This story was published in the June 11, 2014, issue of Mountain Town News. Subscriptions are $45/year.