Vail’s ambivalence about I-70

Alaska transparent soundwall

Ambivalence in Vail about I-70 wall

Pick your poison: eyes or ears?

by Allen Best

VAIL, Colo. – Undeniably a blessing to Vail because of the transportation it provides, Interstate 70 has also been a curse. It’s terribly noisy.

One former mayor, Bob Armour, said he had come to peace with the noise from the adjoining highway by thinking of it as a rapids-filled river. Hotels in Vail now routinely have air conditioning, which requires more ductwork, making them somewhat taller. Part of the reason is that it’s just too noisy to keep the windows open.

The highway has long been in violation of federal noise standards. Efforts to hold down the din by restricting the speed to 65 mph and by using sound-reducing materials in the pavement have been problematic.

So resistance to a sound wall along I-70 has surprised a number of town officials and activists. The sound wall would be built in conjunction with a new underpass of I-70, between Main Vail and West Vail. Costing $29 million, the Simba Run Underpass would reduce congestion on the roundabout systems at the other off- and on-ramps and improve the efficiency possibilities for the town’s heavily used public bus system, potentially drawing even more riders.

The federal government would pay for 70 percent of the underpass. The Colorado Department of Transportation would also pay the cost of a 12-foot-high concrete wall to serve as a sound wall for a 3,400-feet-long segment along the north side of I-70 adjacent to the new underpass. Partly because it’s generally lower than I-70, the south (ski mountain) side is less affected by I-70 noise and doesn’t meet federal criteria.

Alaska soundwallThe least expensive option is a concrete sound wall, similar to what is found along I-70 at Silverthorne, on the approach to the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel Complex. It would cost $4.4 million, all of which would be paid by the state. A transparent wall made of acrylic material could add $800,000 to the price, and the Vail town government would have to pay that cost. It would be about 14 feet high.

Sound along the highway varies considerably, reports Tom Kassmel, the town engineer, but generally is in the upper 60 decibels, above the federal interstate highways standard of 65 db.

A study in Vail suggested that a 12-foot sound wall would quell the din by 5 to 7 decibels, or about 5 percent.

“It’s the difference between a big truck and a small truck,” said Aaron Radzinak, a resident of Simba Run, in a December meeting covered by the Vail Daily.

The Vail Homeowners Association, which has long characterized I-70 as a key source of impairment of Vail’s environment, robustly supports the underpass—and would seem to support the sound wall.

“The difference between the normal condition and 7 db would bring down the noise level for a nearby resident so much so that they could, for the first time, enjoy their outside decks and have windows open on a sunny summer or winter afternoon,” the association said in a January newsletter devoted to the issue.

The newsletter also points out that if Vail rejects this sound wall, the state government almost certainly won’t be a partner in funding other sound walls.

Diane Johnson, who lives along the highway, remains skeptical. She started renting a 980-square-foot condo along the highway 28 years ago and now, as an owner, still lives there, now with a husband their two children. They want to live in Vail, not elsewhere, and are willing to accept the trade-offs, she says.

But she fears the reduction in noise might be more than offset by the visual intrusion of a concrete or even acrylic wall.

“I am not sure the visual impairment is worth the reduction in sound, because there would still be a lot of sound,” she says.

The acrylic barrier looks nice in pictures, but she fears it would become like a dirty window. Cleaning the acrylic would cost $20,000 per month.

A 2005 study identified only two segments of the nine-mile segment of I-70 through Vail where a sound wall would reduce highway noise significantly, and this is one of them. Sound travels upward, and much of Vail is built on slopes above the highway level.

As required by a federal process, the “benefitting receptors” of the noise wall are being surveyed, with a Jan. 30 deadline. Pivotal is the town government’s vote, whose nearby affordable housing is responsible for 34 percent.

Jim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Homeowners Association, says that I-70 is a problem for Vail in both its deleterious effects on the water quality in Gore Creek and in the noise pollution.

“Vail’s economy is dependent upon maintaining the highest possible quality of natural environment,” he says. “It appears that this is one of Vail’s biggest challenges in life immediately ahead.”

A damaged environment, he contends, already has damaged the economy.

“People with the means,” he says, “are already making a slow walk to the exit.”

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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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One Response to Vail’s ambivalence about I-70

  1. Mark McIlheran, P.E. says:

    As a consulting engineer, I have been involved in the design and construction of two transparent noise barriers. I have also advised state DOTs on the care and long term maintenance of these systems. The normal cost of cleaning transparent acrylic panels is $0. No state DOT budgets any money for cleaning, including the wall pictured in Alaska. Normal rainfall is adequate for keeping the panels clean. I can’t imagine how or who could have estimated $20k per month for cleaning.

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