Vail underpass construction’s first focus is on I-70
By the numbers
20 months: Estimated duration of the project.
$30 million: Approximate cost of a new underpass beneath Interstate 70 in Vail.
$9 million: Approximate town of Vail contribution to the project.
70,000: Cubic yards of dirt will be moved.
Project website: https://www.codot.gov/projects/i70vailunderpass.
VAIL — People have been talking since the 1980s about linking Vail’s frontage roads with an underpass beneath Interstate 70. Work has finally begun on that long-lasting item on the town’s wish list and will continue into late 2017.
Design work started in early 2013 on the underpass, with a funding announcement from the state made in late summer of that year. Since that time, the price has increased significantly, from about $21 million to about $30 million today. The town of Vail is picking up roughly 30 percent of that cost.
When finished, town officials say the new underpass will cure or ease a host of transportation problems in town. A way to cross I-70 between the main and west Vail interchanges is expected to cut response times for emergency vehicles and will allow the town greater flexibility in routing and scheduling buses. The new underpass also will help bicyclists and pedestrians get across the interstate.
From the state’s perspective, the underpass is expected to reduce traffic at the roundabouts at the main and west Vail interchanges, lengthening the expected service life of those structures.
Getting the new project from the drawing board to construction took about three years, and it wasn’t easy.
The state had to find funding, not just originally but again in 2015 when the new, higher-cost estimate came in. The town, too, had to increase its stake in the project.
Working with neighbors
Then there was the matter of neighbors. On the south side, the town and state adjusted the project and its landscaping to accommodate one homeowner who lives on the south side of Gore Creek but whose home would be affected by people driving the roundabout at night.
The north side of the project required far more work and negotiation, since the roundabout on that side is near the Simba Run and Savoy Villas condominiums. That work required adjusting roundabout, retaining wall and landscaping, particularly because the project boundaries come within 50 feet of the nearest Simba Run condos.
Another complication came from the Federal Highway Administration. During the environmental review for the project, the feds determined that the north side of the project was close enough to homes to trigger a study and a vote on adding a noise wall along roughly 4,000 feet of I-70. That wall would have added about $5 million to the project’s cost.
A vote of residents came down against adding the wall.
Longtime Vail architect William Pierce was an advocate of the noise wall and continues to believe that not including it is a missed opportunity in a town where noise from the interstate is always on the minds of many residents.
But there’s no wall.
There also have been any number of public updates about the project, both at Vail Town Council meetings and in various open-house sessions over the past few years.
“Like most projects, this has been about public information, getting that information to the right people and getting feedback,” town senior engineer Tom Kassmel said. “We tried to get people involved early on.”
Since the design work was completed, the project has been turned over largely to the state. And, despite having a roughly 17-month construction schedule, a lot will happen fairly quickly, weather permitting.
The first step is rerouting I-70 into two-way traffic to allow excavation under the highway. Now, the eastbound lanes have been squeezed down. A similar switch will take place in about six weeks, with the two-way configuration switching over to the westbound lanes.
On the frontage roads
Following the July Fourth holiday weekend, work will start on the frontage roads. That’s when in-town traffic is going to get complicated. North Frontage Road in particular will see a lot of excavation — with about 70,000 cubic yards of dirt to be moved.
The frontage roads will be shifted to one-way traffic through the construction zones, with eastbound traffic on the south side and westbound traffic on the north side. That means someone driving from Lionshead Village to West Vail will need to head east though the main Vail roundabout and then head west.
During the 2016-17 ski season, traffic will return to normal on the frontage roads, with the construction zone deactivated for the winter.
During the entire projects, the town bike path on the north side will stay open, with a slight detour around the construction zone. The path on the south side will be routed down to the Gore Valley Trail.
While he lives near what will be a very busy construction zone, Pierce said he’s figured out a back way to West Vail along Lions Ridge Loop.
And, while he still believes the underpass would have been better located a few hundred yards to the east, Pierce said the end result will bring what’s been envisioned for all these years.
“It should be able to do what it’s supposed to do when it’s finished,” Pierce said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @scottnmiller.
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