Will beefed-up chain law be enforced? | AspenTimes.com

Will beefed-up chain law be enforced?

Nicole Formosa
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY ” Truck drivers are facing higher penalties next year for ignoring the chain law, but whether or not there will be enough police officers on the interstate to enforce the law remains to be seen.

Colorado State Patrol Troop 6B, which covers Summit and Clear Creek counties, including the approaches to the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 where many wintertime accidents occur, is chronically understaffed.

“There are many times when we can’t send anyone out to enforce the chain law; we don’t have anyone to send,” said Troop Capt. Ron Prater.

Right now, Troop 6B employs 13 field officers, which allows only one trooper, per county, per shift to be on duty, Prater said.

Prater said numbers he’s seen show his troop ranks last out of all 19 troops in the state in terms of manpower. Troopers are deployed to duty stations based on a formula that takes into consideration factors like geographic size, year-round population and miles patrolled, but not the swing population that both Clear Creek and Summit counties experience, Prater said. It doesn’t help that Troop 6B is the least popular place to be assigned in the entire patrol because of the long winters, he added.

CDOT contracts with the Frisco, Silverthorne and Vail police departments and the Clear Creek and Summit county sheriff’s offices to assist State Patrol with chain law enforcement, but that back-up is dependent on a department’s own staffing that day.

Silverthorne Police Chief Joe Russell said he usually calls in an off-duty officer to help with chain patrols, but sometimes they’re already too burned out to spend their day off policing the snowy, icy interstate.

“There are some people willing to do it, but some people are just plain tired,” Russell said.

Rep. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, the lead sponsor of the chain law legislation, penned a letter to Governor Ritter last month asking that the number of troopers assigned between Floyd Hill and Edwards be increased due to the importance of the I-70 corridor to the state’s economic health.

“I believe it is vital for our tourist industry and for the safety of our mountain communities to have our highways free of jack-knifed trucks blocking the highways,” Gibbs wrote. “… Without adequate state troopers patrolling our mountain highways, truck drivers who disobey our laws are not being stopped and ticketed.”

Last year, Colorado State Patrol issued 346 ticket statewide for violating the chain law ” 215 of those included an additional citation for driving without chains past a sign at which point doing so is illegal, which includes a possible 4-point penalty on a commercial driver’s license.

Prater says with more resources, his office could’ve done better.

“I think that’s a fraction of the tickets we could write,” he said. “I bet we could triple that number easily, would be my opinion, if we had the levels of enforcement.”

The Colorado State Patrol staffing shortage is by no means limited to the mountains.

Since 1981, the number of field troopers in the state has declined by 17 ” in 2006/2007, CSP received funding for 479 field troopers compared with 496 troopers 26 years earlier, said Lance Clem, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, of which CSP is a division.

In 1980-1981, one field trooper served 6,009 residents; this year, that same trooper will serve 9,880 residents, according to CSP’s 2007 strategic plan overview.

While staffing levels have decreased, CSP has added and expanded specialty units like executive security, motor carrier safety and hazardous materials further straining the workforce.

And, in the past decade, population in Colorado has increased by 19.6 percent, licensed drives have increased by 17.5 percent, the number of registered vehicles has jumped by 23.2 percent and traffic volume has increased by 31.3 percent, but the number of troopers on the road hasn’t kept pace.

In fact, CSP is 42 percent understaffed this year compared to where it should be had it kept up with the rate of growth in traffic volume and population in the state, according to a document provided by the Department of Public Safety.

The problem is one of funding for additional personnel.

CSP runs on a $104.9 million budget, most of which comes from the Highway Users Tax Fund. The most likely option to augment the existing budget would be through the general fund, and options there are limited.

“We all know that with (referenda) C and D that saw some temporary relief, but I think the legislature is cognizant that we can’t make a lot of commitments for the long-term because of limits of Tabor” and other factors that cap the growth of the state budget, Clem said.

It’s a constant juggling act between the legislature, the Governor’s office and the Department to weigh resources and allocate them accordingly, and the CSP chief constantly wrestles with where to deploy troopers, Clem said.

Clem said he knows that people are concerned about enforcement of the chain law on I-70 because of comments relayed through the department’s website, but says “it’s not likely for there to be any dramatic change at least in the foreseeable future in the funding situation.”

Rep. Gibbs hasn’t heard any response yet from his letter to the governor, but he doesn’t plan to give up his effort to get more troopers in the mountains given his own concern that the chain law can’t be adequately enforced.

If he doesn’t make any progress this year, he plans to work with the Joint Budget Committee next legislative session to add a field trooper in the budget specifically for the mountains.

Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-4629, or at nformosa@summitdaily.com.

– The bill would raise the fines for commercial drivers who disobey the chain law from $100 to $500, and from $500 to $1,000 for those who block a lane of traffic.

– During various meetings with legislators regarding the bill, CDOT agreed to earmark almost $2.5 million to add new chain-up areas on the I-70 corridor and improve the existing chain stations to address truckers’ concerns. That work will start this summer.

– Last Wednesday, the bill passed the full Senate and is headed to Governor Ritter’s desk.

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