I-70 traffic changes how Coloradans live, play
October 28, 2014
If Brad Rettig isn't in the Dinosaur park-n-ride lot in Golden by 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday during ski season, he knows his skiing hours are at stake — and that's just not something he's willing to risk.
That's an early wake-up call for just about anyone, but he's willing to do it each season because he loves to ski. The Denver resident's passion for the sport is what keeps him on top of the latest traffic news — he is consistently tweeting about weather-related accidents and congestion points along Interstate 70.
"The situation is terrible. It's really a total crapshoot nowadays," Rettig said. "I used to have a pretty good handle on skirting the traffic, but as more and more people move to Denver, the routine is constantly changing."
Rettig tries to get in front of all of it — the snow plows, the metering, avalanche control. He follows the Colorado Department of Transportation on Twitter and is signed up for every email update you can think of that might include I-70 traffic information. He also watches the web cameras to gather real-time information.
The traffic situation isn't just changing the way people travel to the mountains, it's also changing skier habits. Rettig has considered just skiing at Eldora or even Monarch because of the horrendous experience he faces on the roads every weekend.
Rettig has some friends in Denver who are spending their hard-earned cash on destination ski trips this coming season. They'd rather get on a plane and fly somewhere than sit on I-70 every weekend, he said.
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"It's really changing everybody's atmosphere," he said. "We're all shuffling around where we want to go (ski) now."
Karla Burnett Kelly made an even bigger decision related to skiing and traffic earlier this year: Her family sold their homes in Frisco and Parker and moved to Aspen. Her children were on the Team Summit Ski Team and they drove up every weekend and fought their way through the traffic, but the real challenge was on the way back when the kids were tired and cranky.
"The traffic was getting worse and worse, and the crowds at the resorts were getting worse and worse, and we didn't want to move to Frisco full time," she said. "There's a really good school system in Aspen, great resorts and an airport so my husband can travel out when he needs to and not drive at all."
Kelly said they skied Aspen resorts this past spring break and also President's Day weekend — two of the busiest times of the season for any Western ski resort — and they never waited more than 5 minutes to get on a chair lift.
Leaving for less-crowded roads
Congestion on Colorado's roadways is increasing, and the impacts on the economy can be felt all along the I-70 corridor.
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation commissioned a 2007 report, by Development Research Partners, that puts a value of $85 million on the collective personal time that's lost due to I-70 congestion, a number that continues to rise.
The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates that by 2025 as much as 27 percent of winter-season motorists who would normally travel I-70 in the Mountain Corridor will choose not to, depending on the day, location and direction of travel, according to the report.
Choosing another way of life is exactly what people are doing, and some are taking it further than their travel habits. Marianne Hoover lived in Frisco for 10 years but left town in 2008 and headed south to Durango, where traffic is now a thing of the past.
"(The decision to move was) not solely based on traffic, but it definitely had a tremendous influence on us. We bought an acre of land in Breck in 2005 with the intention of building our house on it. We also owned a house in Frisco. We woke up one day and between the weather, traffic and cost of living in Summit County, we chose five places to seek out that were off the grid, nowhere near an interstate, and Durango was the best place for us."
Hoover said she doesn't think the resorts and the state are working well together to fix the traffic problems. The effort needs to be a team effort, she said. With mountains getting bigger — she referred to Breckenridge's Peak 6 expansion as well as summer growth at resorts such as Vail and Breckenridge — there are more people heading to the mountains. The mountain capacities seem to be getting larger, but the road capacities are not, she said.
"The Epic Pass is amazing. … However, I think the rates of the passes need to increase," she said.
Or you build a multibillion-dollar rail system from the Denver airport to the mountains, but Hoover knows that's just not realistic.
Chipping away at progress
The I-70 Coalition, a group made up of various stakeholders along the corridor, has been working to create quicker fixes. The Coalition's program manager, Margaret Bowes, said the only way high-speed rail could become a reality is if a public-private partnership funded it.
"CDOT did a complete study that says technologies exist, but there's not a lot of state or federal funding," she said. "As of today, it's not financially feasible."
The coalition formed a committee to work away at some of the next steps identified in that CDOT high-speed rail study so if the funding does become available, the corridor will be ready.
But as long as high-speed rail is merely a far-off dream, fixes like the Twin Tunnels widening project will have to suffice. CDOT widened the westbound bore this year, following the widening of the eastbound bore last year. The area through the Twin Tunnels is one of the most congested on the corridor during peak travel times.
"That's where CDOT has focused a lot of good effort," Bowes said. "While they're not going to fix I-70 congestion, it will bring a lot of positive benefits."
As the coalition continues to advocate for more improvements, Bowes said perhaps the problem needs to worsen before it can get the funding it needs to improve.
"Knowing that a long-term fix is years away, we do a lot of travel-management efforts," she said. "So, what can we do now to positively impact congestion? The strategy that has the best chance for big impacts is changing traveler behavior."
Changing habits and behaviors
The Coalition and CDOT operate GoI70.com, where motorists can find information about real-time traffic, carpool and parking, bus and van services, travel forecasts and see a list of businesses in the High Country that offer deals encouraging folks to stick around longer in order to ease congestion.
Vail Mayor Andy Daly has followed the traffic situation closely because he sees that it's hurting the guest experience in places like Vail and other popular I-70 corridor ski resorts.
The Twin Tunnel widening project and the state's pursuit to expand the breakdown lane between U.S. 40 at Empire Junction to the Twin Tunnels into a toll lane are what Daly calls easy fiscal improvements.
"As you look at CDOT's budget going forward, a strong argument could be made that they don't even have the dollars to maintain existing roadways, never mind expand," he said. "And if money is not available, then you have to make operating changes in order to affect people's travel experience."
Some ideas include developing more of the breakdown lanes into active travel lanes or stricter laws on private vehicle equipment. Daly said there were 22 road closures on Vail Pass last winter caused by private vehicles, 18 of which had no snow tires or had bad tires.
While it's required by law to have proper tires, Daly said it's not communicated properly.
"I'm not sure chain stations are what we need, but we need an education and enforcement system – if people do cause road stoppages they pay significant fines, just like truckers do," he said.
Daly also supports travel restrictions on trucks, either restricting them to the right lanes or not allowing them on I-70 during peak times at all.
The issue is becoming larger than a statewide traffic problem. It's now a Colorado ski industry problem.
"From a competitor perspective, from an industry perspective, we're all hearing it: It's too easy to fly into Salt Lake City and even Reno to Tahoe," Daly said. "There's a broad concern among Colorado ski areas for improving on the way roads are managed."
The biggest player in the state ski industry, Vail Resorts, offers a $769 season pass valid at five resorts along the I-70 corridor, in addition to resorts in Utah and Lake Tahoe. It's too available for the masses, Hoover said, which is why she thinks winter traffic has gotten worse since the company introduced the discount season pass in 2008.
Vail Resorts hasn't offered to be part of a larger I-70 solution that would require funding. For now, the company is just trying to communicate with its guests. Company spokesman Russ Pecoraro said Vail Resorts is pleased CDOT has focused significant time and resources to the I-70 issue.
"For our part, Vail Resorts, in addition to the work we do as a member of the I-70 Coalition, is focused on educating our guests about the right times to travel and giving them resources to help make informed decisions," Pecoraro said in an emailed statement. "We also provide programs designed to keep cars off the roads at key times, like our Breck carpool incentive and our Sunday Night Sleepover program in Keystone. Our transportation division, Colorado Mountain Express, also keeps thousands of rental cars off the roads every year."
Fighting traffic, image problems
The traffic also contributes to a statewide image problem. The 2007 Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce I-70 congestion report cites Colorado's quality of life as a major enhancement for business recruitment and retention in the state. But the report says I-70 congestion may make economic development efforts more difficult.
"If productivity and business efficiency diminishes by just 0.5 percent due to congestion, this translates into a decrease in Colorado GDP of $728 million annually," according to the report.
Daly isn't willing to watch Vail's image suffer because of traffic problems. He wants to make sure people realize they can still fly to Colorado for a long weekend, which is why Vail is working with Eagle County and the local business community to encourage more direct flights into the Eagle County Airport.
"At some time, technology will allow for a transportation alternative, but I don't think we'll see it in the next 10 to 15 years," Daly said.
That means people like Rettig will have to continue to think of creative ways to get their powder turns in without wasting hours in their cars.
"You've got to plan your entire trip based on traffic," he said. "The reason we all moved out here is to enjoy the outdoors."