Last winter was one for the books: a consistent snowfall that started early, never let up, and led to the largest ski season Colorado’s ever had—official reports tally visitation at a record 12.6 million—up a whopping 10 percent from the previous year.
It was also hell on the drivers.
If you happened to be trying to reach the high country from Colorado’s Front Range—that area roughly between Fort Collins and Pueblo—you probably drove Interstate 70, and chances are you spent more time than you wanted either stopped entirely or creeping along at a crawl in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
If you thought the driving conditions were worse than you ever remembered, you’re right. The combination of epic snowfall and increased population conspired to tangle weekend warrior traffic on a regular basis.
So when is the cluster bomb that is I-70 going to improve? That’s not an easy question. The good news is an answer exists. The bad news is you’re not going to like it. But before we get that, know this isn’t just a story about transportation. This is a story about the rise of an industry, political will, and the Colorado dream. It’s a story about entitlement and responsibility, about frustration and despair. And, of course, it’s a story about skiing.
Highway of Dreams
Let’s start with history. About 50 years ago, Colorado’s ski industry was a mere babe. Folks like Pete Siebert and Earl Eaton were two years into Vail’s operations. Same with Breckenridge, which was charging four bucks for a lift ticket in 1962. The older ski areas like Aspen Mountain and Arapahoe Basin were small and primitive by today’s standards. Those who skied these mountains lived near them. But as the industry took hold, more people wanted access to the mountains, and the U.S. Department of Transportation poured money into developing Interstate 70.
For the purposes of this article, we’re talking about the mountain corridor of I-70, from C470 on the Front Range west to Avon and Beaver Creek, a roughly 90 mile stretch that climbs up to 11,158 feet at the Eisenhower Tunnel. This section of the interstate directly serves the ski areas of Loveland, Copper, Vail, and Beaver Creek, and is an important access to Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Winter Park, Steamboat, Aspen/Snowmass, and Ski Cooper. Following its construction, the interstate was revered as an engineering feat. And then it started to get crowded, says David Krutsinger, project manager at the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“Interstate 70 is what moves Colorado’s economy and it is critical to our ability to enjoy the outdoors,” he says. “In the last 20 years the whole conversation has been about how to respond to growth. Do we keep expanding the highway? At what point do you get to where the highway degrades the experience?”
Many would argue that we have reached that point already.
State officials have been actively researching options to alleviate traffic on I-70 for over a decade, and they just released a final study on the feasibility of building a high-speed train—or other similar system—along the I-70 corridor. Sounds dreamy, right? Don’t hold your breath.
With an estimated cost of $5 billion, the Advanced Guideway System (AGS) is as much of a pipe dream as getting first tracks on a powder day if you live in Denver’s Washington Park. The study also looks at expanding I-70 by another lane or two, but with one caveat: the new lanes would collect tolls in order to help pay for their construction and maintenance costs, which will raise the price of building them, says Krutsinger. Toll roads are more expensive to build because they require on and off ramps and to be separated from the main road. Simply expanding the highway isn’t an option, in part because there’s no money for it, but also because there’s no space in many areas, says Krutsinger.
“We are out of room in the valley floor in a lot of the corridor,” he says. “Topography makes everything very expensive because we’ve used up the cheapest real estate. In addition, a lot of the counties are beginning to say that more highway expansion might hurt their quality of life more than it helps.”
Finding the Cash
Even if there were space, there’s no money to build, says Margaret Bowes, Program Manager of the I-70 Coalition—a non-profit group advocating for counties and businesses impacted by the I-70 traffic problem.
“A long term fix is a long way out because there’s a lack of state and federal dollars,” says Bowes, “There’s no foreseeable funding source for transportation.”
That seems impossible given Colorado’s booming nascent legal marijuana industry, which is expected to yield about $50 million in tax revenue annually; the vested interest of the ridiculously profitable ski resorts, which could, theoretically, pitch in toward that $5 billion price tag; and the availability of money from the feds.
Turns out the marijuana revenue is slated for public health and drug prevention initiatives. Ski areas might help underwrite the cost, but are unlikely to provide significant subsidies to a train or a toll road, says CDOT’s Krutsinger. That’s because most resort subsidies go to air travel that bring out of state visitors to regional airports. Why not tack on a surcharge to lift tickets or passes? Put simply: it won’t raise enough money.
“There are something like 10 to 15 million skier visits each year in Colorado, and so an extra dollar or two would bring in somewhere between $10 and $30 million,” says Krutsinger. “That doesn’t come close to paying the interest on a $5 billion loan for an expanded highway or AGS system.”
That doesn’t mean ski resorts are turning their back on a transit solution. In addition to alleviating the headache of driving for its millions of visitors, ski areas have a vested interest in helping to reduce carbon emissions, says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. Idling I-70 traffic is not good for the environment.
“I-70 is a catastrophe, and at some point societies deal with their problems,” says Schendler. “I predict there will be a ski train. Aspen Skiing Company probably won’t take the lead on that, but once it got rolling, we would come in and support it. We’d testify about its importance and invest in the campaign and support the politicians.”
And so it boils down to politics.
Federal highway funding is in a crisis state of affairs, with the Highway Users Tax Fund operating at a deficit, says Krutsinger. This is because the gas tax, a $0.42 per gallon flat fee paid at the pump, hasn’t increased in 20 years. Meanwhile, the cost of gas has increased significantly. When a tank of gas cost $1.50 a gallon two decades ago, nearly a third of that was collected for the gas tax. These days, gas is $3.50 per gallon, which means the proportion of gas tax collected drops significantly. Today’s cars are also more fuel efficient, which means fewer trips to the gas station and even less gas tax revenue.
“On a national level, the gas tax is not paying for the upkeep of the interstate system,” says Krutsinger. “There’s no way we’ll get $5 billion for I-70’s AGS or a toll road from that source.”
Ultimately, says Bowes of the I-70 Coalition, the money will have to come from a partnership that involves state, federal and private money. She predicts that money will be “found” only when the constituents—that would be anyone who is impacted by I-70—unites and lobbies their local, state and federal representatives to find a solution.
“The natives are getting restless on the Front Range,” says Bowes. “This is a political issue because people on the Front Range want easy access to their mountains. The situation on I-70 is affecting the quality of life, and the pressure is building from the grassroots.”
One thing is sure—it will continue to build. Population along the Front Range is anticipated to increase from four million today to six million by 2040. During the same time period, population in the I-70 Mountain Corridor is expected to double to 400,000. If the Colorado mountain economy wants to keep people coming back (instead of flying, say, to Utah, Wyoming, or California), a solution must be found. (And that’s not even considering the very important and very real economic role I-70 plays in transporting goods, food and more throughout the state; if skiers can’t drive to the mountains, delivery trucks are also going to be experiencing significant and costly delays.)
“If you live in Denver but can’t go skiing or up to the mountains in the summer, then it’s not much different from living in any other big city,” says CDOT’s Krutsinger. “We need to find a way to invest in our roads, in our quality of life.”
Five Ways to Beat the I-70 Blues
Stay the night.
Sure, a five-star hotel will set you back a full month’s pay, but cheap options abound. From AirBnB to Frisco’s Super 8, you can find a bed for less than $100. Also—if you’re already staying for the weekend, ask for a late Sunday checkout or for a Sunday night discount to stay one more night.
Rearrange your work schedule.
Obviously this will not work for everyone, but if your job can be done independently and office time isn’t requisite, try to make your “weekend” everyone else’s week. Traffic flies on I-70 Tuesday through Thursday.
What sounds better: a delicious burger or being trapped in your car in a traffic jam? Duh. GoI70.com has skads of deals to keep you off the road during peak hours.
Let someone else drive.
Take a ski bus or a private shuttle (find many choices at GoI70.com) and let someone else deal with the stress. Sure, you might still sit in traffic, but you can read or zone out.
Study the peak times and tips page at GoI70.com to hone your sixth sense of I-70 traffic.
—Rachel Walker is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado, and the brains behind SpawnandSurvive.com. She skis at Jackson Hole as much as possible to avoid I-70.