I-70 interchange at Eagle airport not exactly off the ground, yet | AspenTimes.com

I-70 interchange at Eagle airport not exactly off the ground, yet

Pam Boyd
Eagle correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

EAGLE, Colo. ” An Interstate 70 interchange serving the Eagle County Regional Airport isn’t exactly flying toward completion. In fact, the project is barely off the ground.

It has been discussed for decades, but the project’s status remains a “maybe,” which is something of an improvement, given that it had slipped off the Colorado Department of Transportation’s long-range plans entirely a few years back. On the other hand, with an estimated cost of $66 million, the airport interchange is hardly on a fast track to completion.

“I think we are all fairly realistic about the cost to make this happen,” said Eagle County Commissioner Sara Fisher. “But we are still proceeding with this being the best solution.”

Make that the “best solution” for a variety of downvalley woes. While the interchange would obviously be a boon to people traveling in an out of the county airport, it would also be a welcome traffic link for the towns of Eagle and Gypsum.

After consideration of several alternatives, the airport interchange is now conceived as an elevated roadway that would link to I-70 at a point about halfway between Eagle and Gypsum.

“Gypsum wants it built yesterday,” said Town Manager Jeff Shroll. “We are huge supporters of that interchange. We have a lot of growth and development plans based on it.”

In Eagle, where the morning and evening commute hours result in backups around the Eby Creek roundabout up to the I-70 interchange, the airport link is a favored long-term solution to traffic congestion.

According to Town Manager Willy Powell, Eagle is looking at road capacity improvements, but they are really only interim solutions for the bigger problem: Every vehicle is channeled to the same I-70 access point. The real solution is to give motorists another place to get on and off of the interstate.

“But, of course, that’s a very expensive project and its not financially viable for local governments to complete it,” Powell said. “Its a very difficult issue because of the enormity of the cost.”

Given its hefty price tag, local officials are convinced the airport interchange costs simply can’t be borne by local or state sources alone. Federal dollars will have to come into play. Until recently, the lion’s share of Colorado’s state and federal highway funding was earmarked for Denver’s massive $1.67 billion T-REX project. T-REX improved Interstate 25 through the metro area and took more than a decade to finish. But with T-REX now substantially completed, communities and counties all along I-70 are lobbying hard for transportation dollars for various projects along the mountain corridor.

An effort to push the airport interchange along was one of the goals of a contingent of county officials who traveled to Washington D.C. in July. The county group met with members of Colorado’s congressional delegation as well as members of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee. Their mission: to find friends and ultimately find money for the interchange project.

“A project of this size is hard to complete because its so costly and so complex,” said Eagle County Communications Director Justin Finestone. “As a transportation project … it is so expensive that these issues need to be looked at regionally.”

The county stresses that providing a direct access from I-70 to the airport actually benefits the entire mountain corridor because it makes flying a preferable alternative to driving. And, Finestone added, it is in Colorado’s best interest to promote the Eagle County airport because it, in turn, promotes tourism.

While the big financial questions loom for the interchange, some progress has been made. An Environmental Assessment Statement has been completed and a preferred alignment has been selected. CDOT has earmarked $9 million for right of way acquisition along the route. Additionally, Finestone noted that a substantial amount of design work has been completed for the interchange.

The project financing has been broken down into four phases. Currently, the interchange is still in phase one of the that plan ” finishing right of way acquisition ($6.6 million). The next phase, design completion and pre construction, is slated to cost $14.3 million. The cost of the third phase, I-70 bridge construction ($21.1 million) and interchange; and fourth phase, roundabout and bridge construction ($24 million), round out the price tag.

“And that is in today’s money. The longer we wait, the higher the cost will be,” notes Finestone.