CDOT seeks ways to improve traffic flow in El Jebel-Basalt corridor

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Developers and government officials are exploring ways to ease traffic congestion that’s tormented commuters lately on Highway 82 in the midvalley, but the Colorado Department of Transportation say there is no “obvious solution.”

A CDOT official suggested to Basalt town government that traffic signals on the crowded highway should be connected via fiber optic cable so they communicate more effectively. Many commuters complain that they get “caught” by red lights at Highway 82’s intersection with El Jebel Road, Lower Willits Lane, Original Road and Upper Willits Lane/Two Rivers Road. The four signals are crammed within 3 miles.

Tying those three signals together by fiber optic cable would “improve highway operations between signals,” wrote Dan Roussin, CDOT’s permit unit manager for the region that includes the Roaring Fork Valley. He made his observation for the town of Basalt as part of its review of the expansion of Willits Town Center. As a result, the town’s proposed conditions of approval include requiring the developer to pay to coordinate the El Jebel and Lower Willits traffic signals. The coordination of the Original Road and Upper Willits signals would be “done by others,” the town’s memo to the council says.

The midvalley experiences some of the highest traffic rates on Highway 82, according to CDOT’s research. The average annual daily traffic count is 30,000 in the corridor between El Jebel and Basalt. That is expected to double in 20 years.

CDOT officials have been cautious about promising too much improvement in the traffic snarls due to coordinating signals. However, the development team proposing a midvalley housing project contends the signal coordination would be a major improvement.

In the application for a project called The Fields, the development team offered to help pay for the traffic signal coordination. The lights currently aren’t coordinated, so commuters can get stuck for long cycles at multiple signals, the application noted.

“The proposed coordination of the signals in the corridor could improve the corridor and intersection performance by as much as 26 percent,” the developers of The Fields claimed.

The team wants to add a traffic signal at the JW Drive/Valley Road intersection with Highway 82. CDOT won’t sign off on the light unless Basalt and Eagle County request it, according to memos to Eagle County officials.

Traffic has been a major sticking point for The Fields and another midvalley development proposal, the Tree Farm. The Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission recommended denial of both projects. The Eagle County commissioners haven’t started their review of either project.

While The Fields eyes the signal coordination as a huge benefit, CDOT officials are more cautious. David Oldham, CDOT’s traffic operations assistant for the region, said in an email that “as far as any opinion related to improved traffic flow to this corridor as a whole I feel it still needs to be evaluated some more.”

In general, signal coordination helps with traffic flow, Oldham said. “Signal coordination benefits the through traffic on the main line of a corridor the most, yet still provides opportunities for left turn traffic and side street traffic to make their movements,” he wrote. “Depending on the situation, coordination can either increase or decrease the side street delay and this would rely on the operation of a signal before it is put into coordination mode.”

In the El Jebel and Basalt corridor, the coordinated lights might help travel between the signals, but it’s uncertain if there would be any gains outside the 3-mile stretch. He noted there is another pair of stoplights at Basalt Avenue and Upper Two Rivers Road along Highway 82.

“Along this particular stretch of highway, there are 3 pairs of signals. Within each pair, the signals are reasonably close to one another where coordination between the two may be beneficial and worthwhile looking into,” Oldham wrote. “When signals are appropriately spaced coordinated, a platoon of vehicles is created and there is a greater chance of knowing when the vehicles will arrive at the next signal. However, the distance between each pair is greater than one mile.”

The state transportation department is looking at the signalized intersections on Highway 82 to come up with options to improve traffic flow, Oldham said. But there is no “obvious solution” because of the long distance between the three pairs of traffic signals.

“There has been no estimate put together by CDOT for costs regarding timing improvements or installing signal interconnect for this stretch of Highway 82,” he said.