Traffic gains projected for Highway 82 | AspenTimes.com

Traffic gains projected for Highway 82

Randy Essex
Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Colorado Highway 82 — the crucial artery of the Roaring Fork Valley and already as busy as the drive from Golden to Boulder — is going to get more crowded, whether the new Grand Avenue Bridge is built or not. If estimates are right, it will be a lot busier.

The Colorado Department of Transportation expects increases five years from now of between 10 and 25 percent at different spots on the 40-mile stretch of Highway 82 from Interstate 70 to the Aspen traffic circle.

In Glenwood Springs, that means more backups and continued long waits for vehicles and pedestrians trying to cross Grand Avenue. Many of those people, particularly summertime pedestrians, are tourists critical to the town's economy.

"The timing of the signals isn't for pedestrians; it's to keep traffic flowing," said Glenwood Springs Mayor Leo McKinney. "That's a legitimate criticism of CDOT. CDOT needs to understand we need to be able to cross Grand a lot easier and safer."

For Basalt, home to the highway's busiest stretch, between El Jebel and Basalt Avenue, it means projected increases as great as 50 percent within 10 years. Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said that shows the need for high-density housing near transit stations.

"If you create jobs, you lose a little of the small-town feel," she said.

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Zane Znamenacek, regional traffic engineer for CDOT, agrees.

"It doesn't feel like a rural highway," he said.

In fact, 82's current traffic counts and projections are comparable to those of state Highway 93 from Golden to Boulder.

Left-turn, visibility issues

In Aspen, whose leaders and residents worry about the town being filled to capacity, projected growth means continued aggressive efforts to "make it easier to get around without your car," said Assistant City Manager Randy Ready.

For residents and workers, it means slower commutes and, occasionally, more white knuckles.

Jim Hall, of Missouri Heights, and Amanda Potvin, of Carbondale, responding to a Post Independent questionnaire about Highway 82, said they worry at times about the speed of traffic — finding agreement with Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, who cited speed as the road's biggest problem. Hall said it's difficult to make left turns onto Highway 82 and, like several respondents, said visibility at night should be improved.

Amy Barr, of Carbondale, said standing water and the risk of hydroplaning "is getting worse with wear and tear on the road surfaces, especially the area between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs."

The growth in traffic is forecast regardless of whether or how the Grand Avenue bridge is rebuilt. CDOT's projections, made using limited data and without a nuanced forecasting model, are based on historical growth.

The state, though, expects large population gains overall. Basalt in particular is in a construction boom, and resorts upvalley show no signs of losing popularity. In fact, more affordable ski passes that can be used at multiple resorts are seen as contributing to traffic on both I-70 and Highway 82.

NO MORE "KILLER 82"

The road, known as "Killer 82" before it was fully widened to four lanes, has become safer through the years, survey respondents said and CDOT statistics indicate.

Besides the long process of widening the highway in segments, begun in the 1960s and wrapped up in 2004, CDOT added wildlife fencing in 2010. That has cut crashes with animals by roughly half, to about 65 a year in the stretch between Glenwood and Aspen.

Dylan Lewis, of Silt, said a friend was killed in the Cattle Creek area in '91, so he pays attention to improvements and considers the highway much safer than it used to be.

"The intersection at Buffalo Valley is perhaps the most dangerous and should be addressed with the South Bridge planning," Lewis said, referring to long-term hopes of connecting Highway 82 and south Glenwood Springs' Airport Road.

The Glenwood-to-Aspen route averages about 105 injury accidents a year, roughly two of them are fatal. So far in 2014, five people have died on the highway downvalley from Aspen, a five-year high.

One of those crashes was at the intersection with Catherine Store Road, which questionnaire respondent Patrick Hunter cited as a danger spot. Znamenacek said that crossing, which intersects routes to Missouri Heights and Carbondale, has one of the more rural stoplights on the highway and may catch drivers unaware.

Znamenacek said CDOT constantly evaluates the road's safety, but "the opportunities to just build more capacity on the highway, they're just not there" because of both costs and impact on communities.

"There's a lot of room for continued improvement with low-cost initiatives," he said. "Eighty-two is always a place we're looking just because of traffic and the importance of the corridor."

CDOT looks to work with communities on such things as pedestrian underpasses recently completed at Willits/El Jebel and the Aspen Business Center, with another planned at Basalt Avenue.

CDOT also looks for opportunities to make improvements in lanes, signs, striping and guardrails whenever it does a maintenance project.

BUSY midvalley

The traffic projections are far from certain.

CDOT compiles counts from different years at different spots on the road and smooths the data to make more or less straight-line projections. While Colorado and Garfield County are both expected to gain population, "will it occur at the same rate" as before, Znamenacek asked, "or over time will it slow down from natural constraints?"

Basalt City Manager Mike Scanlon questioned whether the numbers reflect likely growth or the potential impact of rapid transit through the valley.

Basalt, with traffic counts already higher than Glenwood, is one location where population and traffic growth seem certain. With the town seeing new development, including offices downtown, a hotel at Willits and space between the two for housing, the midvalley stretch of 82 already can seem like a metropolitan suburb at rush hour.

CDOT says that the stretch between El Jebel and Basalt Avenue, made busy by through traffic as well as residents taking children to school or visiting grocery stores, has an average annual daily traffic count of 30,000 vehicles. Using the agency's straight-line method, that's projected to essentially double in 20 years going downvalley at El Jebel Road, which would make that stretch busier than current CDOT spot counts on I-70 at Airport Boulevard in Aurora.

Two of the four fatal accidents on 82 between Glenwood and Aspen this year have occurred on the El Jebel-Basalt stretch — one in which an intoxicated pedestrian was struck in a traffic lane in the middle of a rainy night and the other when a driver crossed into oncoming lanes and struck a motorcycle.

The highway has a pedestrian underpass at El Jebel, and CDOT plans another at the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority park and ride at Basalt Avenue.

"Pedestrian safety at Basalt Avenue is important today and would be even more important if the growth numbers are correct," Scanlon said.

Basalt, Aspen and CDOT officials stress the importance of bus travel as key to holding down traffic volumes. Having added rapid-transit routes, RFTA will have record ridership this year.

"If people can live near (rapid transit) and regular RFTA stations, you can get them off the road and on the bus," said Whitsitt, who is the RFTA board chairwoman.

Aspen, Ready said, makes "a constant effort to make people aware of alternatives to driving" and to be a pedestrian- and bike-friendly community, having added a bike-sharing program. He said the town's Rubey Park Transit Center needs improvement, and initial discussions have been held about a pedestrian crossing at Buttermilk, which can be busy with skiers and snowboarders and also bears the brunt of congestion during events including the X Games.

GLENWOOD ISSUES

Basalt's higher volume notwithstanding, the worst traffic on Highway 82 is in Glenwood Springs.

Because the city is geographically constrained by the canyon walls and two mountain rivers that make it an attractive tourist spot, Glenwood residents have talked about building a Highway 82 bypass since the 1970s. The cost has never been estimated, but CDOT's recent environmental assessment of the Grand Avenue Bridge project spitballs a bypass cost at five to 10 times the $100 million bridge project.

CDOT says a bypass remains on the table, but the bridge project is a safety issue that takes priority.

"I would love for CDOT to take the idea of a bypass seriously," McKinney said. "The needs of Glenwood Springs are so great, but the Transportation Commission doesn't want to address them."

The bridge and bypass are competing 800-pound gorillas in Glenwood traffic discussions, with the bridge project scheduled to start late next year. In the final phase, the bridge, which carries approximately 25,000 vehicles a day, will be closed for three months.

CDOT estimates that travel time through Glenwood will be at least 20 minutes longer than now while the bridge is closed, and the department hopes to reduce traffic by 20 percent.

CDOT regional spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said the agency will conduct a "huge public outreach program" to encourage RFTA use. Officials are looking at discount bus passes and adding parking in Glenwood.

"Once people realize how easy it is to get around" on RFTA, "we might win some folks over" and have a longer-lasting traffic reduction on Highway 82, Trulove said.

"But some people won't let go of driving their car," she acknowledged.

Once the bridge project is complete, Znamenacek said, CDOT will look at retiming Grand Avenue lights to try to "optimize for side streets. It's on a pretty long cycle now."

A pedestrian underpass was considered for downtown Glenwood as part of the project, he said, but was scrapped over doubts that people would use it.

After the bridge is open and the lights retimed, Znamenacek said, "I'm hoping people think it's better."

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