I-70 study brings good news as transportation funding suffers defeat
There’s good news in a study of weekend travel patterns on Interstate 70 from the Denver area to mountain resorts. There’s worrying news, too.
The I-70 Coalition — a nonprofit group of governments and business interests along the three-county mountain corridor — commissioned a study of highway users in February and March of this year.
The study firm, Boulder-based RRC Associates, surveyed highway users at the “dinosaur” park-and-ride parking lots on the west end of the Denver metropolitan area. The study — a continuation of similar research done in 2012 and 2014 — showed efforts to cut congestion are paying some dividends.
More people are carpooling driving to the mountains. Reasons given include saving money on gas and social benefits, but nearly half of respondents said they were carpooling for environmental reasons and to ease traffic congestion.
Nearly two-thirds of those taking the surveys said they use traffic information sources about the highway. About half the use was of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Web or mobile information sources.
A growing number of travelers also said they planned to return later to the metro parking lots. It’s still a relatively small number — 21 percent — but that’s nearly double the number of later-travelers surveyed in 2014.
While the state is urging travelers to use the peak-period toll lanes in Clear Creek County, only about one-third of drivers reported using those lanes.
That’s good, not great, news, but I-70 Coalition Executive Director Margaret Bowes said even some good news is encouraging.
Years of work
Bowes said the Coalition has been working in earnest since 2009 to try to ease congestion on the corridor. But, she added, there’s only so much the relatively small nonprofit group is able to accomplish.
Bigger steps require a bigger partner — in this case, the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Bowes said the state agency has been more actively engaged in highway safety and congestion-reduction efforts for the past few years. The turning point may have been an early-2013 event called alternately the “perfect storm” or “snowpocalypse.” That storm brought a blizzard and heavy snow to the region on a Sunday afternoon.
That day, the corridor’s ability to carry traffic essentially collapsed, with some drivers reporting a 10-hour drive from Edwards to Denver.
“It wasn’t just an inconvenience, it became a safety issue,” Bowes said. “It also led to action.”
In response to that storm, state officials beefed up winter manpower along the corridor. There’s also now a winter operations plan that includes monitoring the corridor from a command center at the Eisenhower Johnson Tunnels.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Bowes said. “But we need to move the needle even more.”
The mountain region’s economy may depend on it because of the sobering news in the survey: Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said they’ve cut back on visits to mountain resorts due to traffic congestion.
“The fact that seven out of 10 Front Range visitors indicate that traffic on the corridor impacts their visitation should keep this issue in front of mind for all of us,” Vail Valley Partnership President Chris Romer wrote in an email. “This report reinforces the need for a comprehensive statewide transportation plan and funding.”
Those funds may not be forthcoming. On Tuesday evening, the same day the study was released, bipartisan negotiations to close a $9 billion funding gap at CDOT appeared to have broken down for good.
House Bill 1242, which would have increased the sales tax rate slightly and raised billions for CDOT infrastructure improvements, enjoyed the support of party leadership in both chambers of the divided Legislature but died on a party line vote in the Senate Finance Committee.
Supporters of the bill included Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, whose district includes Summit County. He chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, where the bill narrowly advanced after amendments that lowered the rate increase and included transfers from the general fund.
“No one said this was a perfect solution, or that it would have been an easy, slam-dunk sell to voters, but I believe the good in this proposal outweighed the bad and that acting now is far better than continually kicking this can down the road, while the backlog of neglected road work grows worse,” Baumgardner said in a statement. “So I’m disappointed that voters won’t have their say, yay or nay, after having an opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of this proposal in its totality.”
Lawmakers now have until the end of the legislative session at midnight May 10 to come up with a solution. If they don’t, some interest groups say they will bypass the Legislature by drafting ballot initiatives, creating the possibility that voters could face several competing proposals in November.
“A citizen’s initiative is what I believe will happen, but I have no guarantee at this point,” Bowes said. “That’s the direction some supporters are saying they want to go. But either way we’re not giving up on this because the need is so great.”
Jack Queen of the Summit Daily contributed to this report.
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