Vail drivers want I-70 traffic relief |

Vail drivers want I-70 traffic relief

Sarah Mausolf
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Traffic backed up on I-70 in the eastbound lanes leading to the Eisenhower Tunnel,
Summit Daily File

VAIL, Colo. – It’s the dreaded trip home for many Vail visitors.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic often greets skiers and snowboarders as they drive east down Interstate 70 on weekend afternoons.

“My record is seven hours from Beaver Creek to Denver,” said Patrick McClary, a 25-year-old Denver resident who snowboards in Vail a few times per year.

As hundreds of skiers and snowboarders flood I-70 in an effort to get home to the Front Range or catch flights in Denver on weekends, eastbound traffic can slow to a crawl.

“The most frustrating thing is knowing it should take you two hours, and then being in Frisco and it’s already taken you two hours,” McClary said. “That’s probably the worst part of it.”

Given the traffic situation, McClary likes the sound of a plan to ease congestion on the highway. State lawmakers have crafted a bill that would encourage the use of moveable concrete barriers to widen a stretch of eastbound I-70 during busy weekend hours.

“Anything to prevent traffic from really getting backed up, I’m all for,” McClary said.

One idea calls for a concrete barrier to divide the westbound lanes, temporarily redirecting the inside lane to eastbound traffic. In other words, the eastbound lane would widen to three lanes while the westbound lanes would narrow to one lane.

Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, said he plans to introduce the bill within the next few days along with Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, and Rep. Christine Scanlan, who represents Eagle and Summit counties.

The law doesn’t spell out where the so-called “zipper lanes” would apply, but officials are eying a stretch between Eisenhower tunnel and Floyd Hill, Scanlan said. One scenario envisioned by senators would put a zipper lane down a 15-mile stretch of I-70 through Clear Creek County. It would create an eastbound express lane from just before Georgetown to Central City Parkway, for three to four hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

Scanlan said the “zipper lane” could be good for Vail’s economy.

“Any time the highway is stopped, where traffic is at a standstill, our region loses about a million dollars an hour in local revenue,” she said. “If we can keep traffic flowing, that helps the entire local economy.”

If widening the eastbound lane works out, she said officials could look into doing the same thing with the westbound lane during times when skiers and snowboarders are commuting into the mountains. That could prevent people heading west to Vail from getting stuck in traffic and giving up, she said.

“We lose people who get frustrated and decide it’s not worth the trip,” Scanlan said.

Few people in the valley are more aware of the traffic problem on I-70 than Matt Darpli. He owns Eagle Vail Express, a company that often drives Vail vacationers to the Denver airport on Sundays. A trip to the airport usually takes 2 hours but it can drag on for up to 4 1/2 hours on a Sunday afternoon, Darpli said.

“We’ve had customers miss flights in the past,” he said. “It’s pretty brutal.”

That said, Darpli questions whether the concrete barrier would create a new problem: traffic jams in the westbound lane.

“Once you constrict I-70 down to one lane, you’re bound to have traffic,” he said.

Also troubling to Darpli, the three lanes would eventually have to merge back into two lanes, and that could be especially dicey if the merge happens at the small tunnel by the Idaho Springs exit, he said.

“Whenever there’s a merge it actually causes a backup,” he said. “So if you’ve got three lanes pinching down to two lanes at the tunnel, it’s hard to say what would happen.”

Jonathan Levine is in a similar line of work. Levine owns Hummers of Vail and Eco Limo of Vail. He thinks the zipper lane has the potential to ease traffic but questions how safe it would be having traffic flowing in opposite directions on either side of the concrete barrier.

Also, he worries about the “aggressiveness of drivers seeking to get into that third lane at all costs, thinking that’s the only way to get onto their flight.”

He also questions how much the zipper lane would cost.

“How much are we talking about with the concrete, the special machine to move it and the time [for workers to install it]?”

Scanlan estimates the total cost for the zipper lane would be $20 to $25 million. That’s far less expensive than adding an extra lane to the stretch, which could cost $100 million, she said.

The zipper lane would be a temporary measure designed to ease traffic until a more permanent fix like a monorail or lane widening could take place, officials say.

“I think this could be successful, I’d like to see us give it a try,” said Sen. Al White, R-Eagle County “It’s relatively inexpensive compared to a lot of the considerations we’re looking at and don’t have the money to accomplish.”

The bill would not require the Colorado Department of Transportation to install the zipper lanes, Gibbs said. Instead it would allow the agency to form a partnership with a private company that makes the concrete barriers.

The Department of Transportation has been considering the movable barriers for about a year and is in the process of studying safety issues, a spokeswoman told The Denver Post.

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