I-70 needs gradual change, not miracle cures | AspenTimes.com

I-70 needs gradual change, not miracle cures

Allen Best

Colorado’s Interstate 70 west from Denver into the Rocky Mountains is a statement of stubborn will. With four and sometimes six lanes, it swerves through impossibly tight canyons and crosses two major mountain ranges. At more than 11,000 feet in elevation, the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel Complex is the highest interstate in the nation. The route through gorgeous Glenwood Canyon, completed in 1993, was the most expensive.

Driving this highway can be as good as it gets in the West. And it can also be miserable, with the latter experience becoming more common as traffic builds and drivers get stalled for hours ” especially between Denver and the mountain resorts in Summit and Eagle counties. Add a winter storm that closes the highway, and drivers get really frustrated. This is no mountain road anymore; Interstate 70 is an urban highway, and it’s inadequate for the times.

Colorado is currently divided about what to do next, with the discussion framed as a choice of either more asphalt or some kind of train, possibly a monorail. Both simplistic visions have major problems.

What we need right now is an understanding of the power of incremental change.

Widening highways bit by bit is what we understand best, because that’s what we’ve done for the last 70 years. We love our cars and trucks for their privacy, and we love the almost unlimited choice of destinations and routes they afford us.

But I-70 affords little opportunity for widening, and any widening can only take place at great financial cost and harm to the environment. The highway’s geography has always been a source of frustration. Fortune seekers of the 1870s, hurrying from Denver to the thick silver veins of Leadville, mostly took more circuitous routes. Straight was not necessarily quicker in the mountains. Even in 1956, when Congress authorized the original 40,000 miles of interstate highways, it put the terminus of the interstate from Baltimore at Denver.

Engineers thought a route across the Rockies too expensive. When Congress later authorized work on I-70, nothing in the work proved the engineers wrong.

The environmental costs are clear: From Sahara-like sand dumped in adjoining creeks to its incessant noise, the interstate’s impacts have been large, and, perhaps, can never be fully mitigated. The environmental response during the last decade has been to push for a monorail or some other type of rail-based transportation. Yet the $5 billion or more such a train system would require is not available in any budget, and it’s not clear the technology is, either. And finally, public demand for such an expensive transportation system does not yet exist. I-70, I am happy to report, is pretty quiet for months of the year.

Incremental change is what’s needed. Congestion-pricing is one idea floated this winter by Chris Romer, a Democratic state senator. It makes buckets of sense. We now have the technology to charge vehicles more if they’re driven at the busiest times. Higher prices will shave off the peaks. It’s not the only answer, but it’s a step in the right direction.

We could also use some kind of limited mass transit, probably buses. Despite the depressing image of long-haul buses, short-haul buses work really well in many urban areas. You see lots of professors and scientists shuttling daily between Denver and Boulder, while buses also take Aspen’s work force back and forth to work along an 80-mile corridor. Rail in that corridor remains in the wings, as the numbers just aren’t there yet. On I-70, Sen. Romer proposes reserving third lanes where they exist for high-occupancy vehicles ” why not buses, too?

Buses aren’t the full answer either, but they’re a step ahead of what exists now ” nothing but cars.

Incremental change has always been the way of transportation. We didn’t instantly go from horse-drawn buggies and steam locomotives to interstate highways. The changes took decades. Even expanding to four lanes between Denver and Glenwood Springs took the better part of 40 years. A bus system, in conjunction with congestion pricing, might help clear the way for a future train, encouraging the land-use patterns and transportation networks that will be needed before rails can be laid.

Let’s face it: The geography and environment of the I-70 corridor can’t take any more asphalt. But if we break through our prejudices against buses, we can end the traffic jams and find some intermediate solutions on our way to a monorail.