As the state booms with an influx of powder seekers and entrepreneurs, Colorado’s moutain roads just keep getting more congested. is there any help on the way?
When traveling on Interstate 70 between Summit County and Denver, the traffic can become part of the adventure. In the summer, you very well may beat the afternoon storms on your summit hike but sit in the downpour of traffic during your eastbound return to the Front Range. In winter, westbound delays to resorts can guarantee the powder is all skied out by the time you get there.
And if you live in the mountains and have a flight to catch, a ridiculously early departure—or sleeping at a friend’s in Denver the night before—is the norm, because there’s no trusting I-70 traffic in the mountain corridor.
Traffic in Colorado has definitely gotten worse. More and more people are traveling on I-70. In 1974, the first full calendar year that the Eisenhower Tunnel was open, 3.3 million vehicles passed through the tunnels. In 2018, 13.4 million vehicles drove through the tunnels, according to Colorado Department of Transportation traffic counts.
But for the weary rider who gave up resort skiing for the backcountry because of the traffic, or the trail runner who moved to the mountains to escape the crowds but now can’t make a simple run to the grocery store on a Saturday thanks to the Franger-influx traffic, there is hope. There are even bright spots.
Travel time on eastbound I-70 from the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels to Denver has dipped since the toll lanes opened. Ridership on Bustang, CDOT’s wifi-enabled motor-coaches that are designed for travel beyond the typical RTD bus route, from Denver to Glenwood Springs has more than doubled since the route started in 2015. CDOT is breaking ground on a new project this summer to free up westbound I-70 traffic, and stakeholders in mountain communities are still looking for funding solutions that will bring a high-speed passenger rail from Denver to Grand Junction.
Still, funding transportation continues to be a challenge, and the flow of people moving here, mostly to the Front Range, continues—as of July 2018, Colorado’s population had grown 13.2% since 2010.
Traffic through this corridor is frustrating for locals, but it’s also a broader issue, both for the commercial vehicles that use I-70 as the main artery through the state and for Colorado’s growing $1.28 billion tourism industry.
“A lot of recreation is accessed through the I-70 corridor, so its very important economically,” says Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition, a group of 28 local governments and businesses along or adjacent to the corridor. She lives in Summit County. “The folks on the Front Range, many of them move to Denver to have access to the mountains, so for those folks and the native Coloradans, [traffic] is a quality of life issue.”
Here’s some food for thought on the I-70 traffic situation for the next time you’re sitting in the middle of it.
Transportation Funding on the Ballot
If you voted in 2018, you might remember two competing ballot initiatives about transportation, Propositions 109 and 110. Proposition 110 sought a state sales tax increase to fund road projects statewide and other transportation needs. Prop 109, which asked voters to approve up to $3.5 billion in bonds for a limited number of highway projects, was largely a response to Prop 110 from its opponents.
Voters didn’t like either measure. Both issues went down, with around 60% voting no on each.
The failure of Prop 110 was a blow for transportation advocates. The rise of electric and hybrid vehicles means Colorado’s gas tax isn’t bringing money to the state’s transportation coffers the way it once did, Bowes says. “I think there’s a lack of awareness that the gas tax isn’t meeting our needs.”
And transportation funding isn’t easily increased. Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR, requires voter approval for new taxes and limits how much the state can collect and spend from pre-existing taxes before giving it back to residents via a refund. But the 2018 ballot wasn’t the first time voters had turned down a transportation tax since TABOR went into the constitution in 1992, so state legislators and CDOT are used to finding creative solutions. A bipartisan effort at the legislature coaxed some extra funding into transportation in 2018, and voters can expect to see another transportation question on the ballot in 2020.
In May, Shoshana Lew, the agency’s executive director who was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis, announced a revamp of the agency’s notorious $9 billion maintenance and projects backlog. “The backlog hasn’t gone away, but we are doing a big summer outreach effort to review, validate and update the priorities on that list,” says CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson.
Funding problems don’t always freeze improvement projects in their tracks, though. CDOT announced a $550 million westbound I-70 mountain corridor proposal in May 2018 that included widening lanes at Floyd Hill and linking Jefferson and Clear Creek county trails. The catch? They didn’t have funding for the proposal.
Yet contractors will break ground on a slice of that project, a new toll lane, this summer. “We were able to get a grant from the federal government that provided a portion of the necessary funding to get that under way,” Wilson says.
More Toll Lanes Are Coming
One of CDOT’s bigger projects in recent years, the eastbound Mountain Express toll lane, opened in late 2015. At the time, local media outlets couldn’t help but point out that it’s upper-end fee of $40 made it the most expensive toll road in the state. But as the first year passed, the true fare most were paying was $4 to $6, and the lane was working—with 8% of eastbound traffic using it (when the lane was open), and traffic in general moving along more steadily. Last year, use of the express lane increased again. It was up 18% from 2017, according to Wilson. And travel time decreased for all, not just those paying the toll.
The eastbound toll lane “has exceeded expectations,” Bowes says. “The goal of that lane was to provide a reliable travel time. So they use tolls to make sure that lane is always moving at close to speed limit.” (For those living in the mountain corridor or Western Slope who have to travel to Denver for a flight or medical appointment, a reliable travel time is a big deal.) “That it improved travel times in those two free lanes was a pleasant surprise,” Bowes says.
This summer, construction will begin on another toll lane between the Twin Tunnels (what CDOT now calls the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels) and Denver. The new westbound toll lane will run from Empire to the tunnels. It’s expected to open in spring or early summer of 2021, Wilson says.
Like the eastbound lane, the westbound lane will be a “Peak Period Shoulder Lane” that will be open on high-traffic days, not daily. It will serve as a shoulder the rest of the time.
Bowes has high hopes for the westbound toll lane. “I think the expectation is it will perform very similarly [to the eastbound lane],” she says. “The westbound delays have increased dramatically over the last decade, and even the last five years. People are really clamoring for some relief.”
The Bustang Bump
The I-70 Coalition’s plan for the interstate calls for “multi-modal” improvements to the mountain corridor. The answer to the congestion problems isn’t more pavement. The only way to accommodate everyone who needs to travel along this route is other modes of transportation.
CDOT’s wifi-enabled Bustang coaches are part of that answer. Bustang’s West Line travels from Denver to Grand Junction daily, and ridership has more than doubled since the service launched in 2015.
Wilson noted that the West Line has a ridership dip every year during mud season but that the service becomes more popular year after year. From Denver to Vail, ridership hit an all-time high in the month of January, when 7,330 people rode the bus. Ridership topped at least 6,500 per month through this year’s ski season. During the 2015-16 ski season, ridership hovered around 2,200.
“That Bustang service was really designed to help residents of the Western Slope reach critical services on the Front Range,” Bowes says. But it’s now on the radar of skiers, who are using it to get to resorts. Mountain towns along the corridor are aware of the multi-modal transportation push and are focused on providing transportation once you arrive, she says, noting that Summit, Eagle and Clear Creek counties have public transit, as does Winter Park.
“We also have Lyft, we have Uber, Breckenridge has Zipcar,” Bowes says.
But aside from de-clogging I-70, she’s been pushing another reason to take Bustang. “There’s a limit to how many cars mountain towns and resorts can park.”
Riding the Bustang from Denver to Vail costs $17. That’s less than you’re likely to spend on parking alone in Vail.
The Hyperloop buzz in Colorado has died down a bit. Blasting through the state at 600 mph isn’t possible yet, and Arrivo, the Hyperloop-inspired company that CDOT announced a partnership with in 2017, folded at the end of 2018.
But transportation advocates haven’t given up on the idea of a high-speed rail line of a different, non-Hyperloop sort, from Denver to Grand Junction. “We know the technology exists, so that’s not the question,” Bowes says. “It’s how to fund it, the feasibility. The coalition and other stakeholders and CDOT have chipped away at those questions, but the bottom line is, at this point, it’s still a pretty expensive endeavor.””
Bowes is still hopeful that a high-speed passenger rail could come to the I-70 corridor, though. “The fact that the governor is very interested in a Front Range rail will move that conversation forward, so I think that’s really encouraging for transit. We have always recognized that a high-speed line would go on the Front Range first, but that perhaps makes it more feasible for it to connect east-west as well.”