The specter of Colorado’s legendary I-70 mountain traffic snarl
While we in Utah examine the transportation issues facing our canyons, we wonder: What would happen if we just stopped and let things take their course? We decided to look at the cautionary tale of our neighbors in Colorado who are dealing with regular pileups of mountain traffic on Interstate-70.“If you can start something now, start an initiative now for people going into the mountains, it will make it much easier to continue in the future.” —Patrick Chavez, Mountain Corridor Manager at the Colorado Department of Transportation
“The overall volume and congestion of the area, combined with having only two lanes of inbound and outbound traffic causes a backup very quickly,” said Patrick Chavez, Mountain Corridor Manager at the Colorado Department of Transportation. “Trying to find a solution is tough, because it’s not easy to build there; adding a three-lane portion that meets all the Federal Highway Administration standards would be very difficult.”
An overloaded I-70 clogs up at the peak hours of summer and winter recreation: Saturday morning and Sunday night, when winter skiers and summer hikers head to the mountains to enjoy the outdoors, and when they return at the end of the weekend. These surges cause backups and delays that are infamous among locals in the area.
“I’ve lived here for almost 15 years and the need for additional capacity on I-70 has been known for at least that long,” on frustrated Coloradan said. “It’s only gotten worse over that time and no long-term solutions to seriously address it have gone forward.”
Maybe 15 years ago the issue wasn’t bad enough to talk about, but its certainly top of mind for Coloradans now. The situation is regularly bemoaned and reported on in local news. As we examine transportation solutions in our own canyons (Parleys, Big and Little Cottonwood) its easy to see this traffic snarl in Colorado as a cautionary tale and one that certainly Colorado planners wish they could have addressed long ago.
“This has been an issue that we’re trying to come to terms with,” said Chavez. “But what it comes down to is money and the capability to increase capacity. Trying to justify spending millions of dollars to increase the traffic flow is difficult when it flows normally for almost all of the week and has these slow downs for just a few hours.”
To try and assuage the situation, CDOT and other organizations have put together incentives, campaigns and spread information to try to sway drivers to change their routine to avoid peak traffic times. For example, restaurants and businesses at the resorts offer discounts on Sunday afternoons to try to get people to wait to drive home until the evening. CDOT has also installed signs at the bottom and top of their canyons that show drivers how long the wait time is in the canyon is, and offer a text message update service, in hopes that this information will sway drivers from heading into the traffic.
The biggest change they’ve made is adding in a toll lane onto their existing shoulder of the road. This lane opens during peak traffic times, and the toll price changes depending on congestion. The price can reach as high as $30 in the highest trafficked times. It’s expected to help make a difference in those peak times. This winter season will be its first test.
But it’s easy to see that these solutions as mere band-aids for a much bigger problem that is nearly too late to remedy properly. The solutions being discussed by Mountain Accord stakeholders are not about putting more people in our canyons, they are about reducing the overall impact of a growing population on our canyons. Reducing the number of single-car drivers, dis-incentivizing driving and incentivizing transit. Getting it done will take cooperation among local and state leaders, federal agencies, resort and other private land owners as well as buy in from advocacy groups like Save our Canyons, The Nature Conservancy and the Backcountry Skiers Alliance.
But the specter of I-70s snarl lurks in our future if we do nothing.
“If you can start something now, start an initiative now for people going into the mountains, it will make it much easier to continue in the future,” Chavez said.