Mountain coalition aims to ease I-70 jam |

Mountain coalition aims to ease I-70 jam

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Traffic comes to a standstill on Interstate 70 last summer following an accident in the westbound lanes just east of Dillon. Volume and accidents bring traffic to a stop dozens of times a year on the interstate, regardless of the season. (Mark Fox/Summit Daily file)

KEYSTONE, Colo. ” A broad coalition of mountain governments and business interests agreed Thursday to widening some stretches of Interstate 70 and studying a mass-transit system to solve the highway’s congestion.

The Colorado Department of Transportation will incorporate the recommendation as part of its final environmental study for the corridor, with a formal decision due in 2010, said Russell George, the agency’s director.

Then, the big job begins: Finding the money.

“We couldn’t ask for the resources until we got the environmental clearances,” George said. “We need to be able to tell citizens: If you want these things, this is what it will cost.”

The history of planning for I-70 improvements has been contentious and political.

“It was stalled, essentially, over disagreement as to whether it should be highway widening or mass transit,” said George, who launched the collaborative effort that resulted in Thursday’s agreement. “We now have the essential … process moving again.”

A key issue for many of the participants ” which included elected officials, business owners, private individuals and representatives of environmental organizations — was the inclusion of a high-speed mass-transit system along the interstate.

“This is a global, 21st century solution,” said Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon. “With the increased price of energy, we need to look at mass-transit solutions to transportation issues.

“We’ve got a roomful of people, and the one thing, the first thing, everyone agreed on is an advanced-guideway system.”

Longtime transit advocate Eric Turner of Breckenridge is convinced that, as a result of the deal, some sort of transit system will be built in the next few decades.

“Absolutely. Some people who were adamantly opposed now support transit, as long as it’s part of a comprehensive solution,” he said. “We came up with the what, now it’s up to CDOT and the state legislature to come up with the how.”

Widening the interstate alone has been estimated to cost several hundred million dollars, and a fixed-guideway system, such as a monorail, has been pegged at more than $5 billion.

“It’s our commerce corridor,” said Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt, hailing Thursday’s deal as a practical common-sense plan for I-70. “We’ve been working for years on what this could look like. We listened to each other and found consensus.”

Specific major highway improvements that got a thumbs up include:

– A six-lane stretch from Floyd Hill through the twin tunnels, including a bike trail and frontage roads from Idaho Springs east to Hidden Valley and on to U.S. Highway 6;

– Improvements to the I-70-U.S. Highway 40 interchange at Empire Junction;

– Auxiliary lanes on the east and westbound approaches to the Eisenhower Tunnel.

Other planned project include improvement to truck operations, such as pull-outs, parking and chain stations, safety improvements west of Wolcott, safety and capacity improvements in Dowd Junction and an auxiliary lane between Frisco and Silverthorne.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s reasonable,” said Clear Creek County Commissioner Harry Dale, who steadfastly opposed widening the interstate through Idaho Springs, Georgetown and Silver Plume.