State’s winter tactics paying off to keep I-70 flowing during snowstorms
HOW OFTEN DOES IT CLOSE?
A Post Independent data project showed that I-70 closes about every 2.4 days between Denver and Utah — for more reasons than you might expect.
Turn the clock back to Feb. 2, 2014, if you want to know when state transportation officials got really serious about keeping Interstate 70 open. Those efforts will continue in the winter to come.
That day — a Sunday after feet of snow had fallen the previous week, drawing thousands of weekend visitors to the mountains — another foot or more of snow fell in a matter of hours.
A combination of heavy snow, overwhelmed road crews and a significant percentage of drivers with inadequate tires shut down the highway for hours. There were reports of people being on the roads for 10 or 12 hours between Edwards and Denver.
Since that storm, the Colorado Department of Transportation has adopted a number of strategies and tactics to help ward off further corridor shutdowns.
The department now has a winter-storm coordinator to put equipment and people where they’re most needed. The department also now works more closely with state, county and local police agencies. The National Weather Service helps with up-to-the-minute reports of where snow is falling and how fast storms are moving.
CDOT also got help from the Colorado Legislature, which appropriated money for the tactics and authorized hefty fines for motorists who cause a crash when driving on substandard tires.
State transportation officials also are quicker to impose a pair of traffic codes requiring the use of either snow tires or other kinds of traction aids.
Stacia Sellers is the public information officer for CDOT’s District 1, which includes I-70 from the Denver area to the top of Vail Pass.
Sellers said those tactics, and others, have helped keep traffic flowing.
Transportation officials are also quicker to declare “safety closures” along the interstate. Those brief closures give plow drivers a chance to cover a stretch of highway — usually Vail Pass or the approaches to the Eisenhower Johnson Tunnels — using both plow blades and de-icers to keep the roadway navigable.
Those safety closures have inflated the highway closure statistics — road closures in the winter of 2016-17 were up 41 percent from the previous year. On the other hand, the duration of highway closures has decreased by more than 30 percent.
“That’s a big win in our eyes,” Sellers said. “The less time people have to be sitting on the roadway, the better.”
Sellers said the strategies and tactics put in place over the past three winters won’t change that much, adding that officials will continue to determine how best to refine what’s already being done.
What will be new this winter is the use of a solution to pre-treat roadways just before snow falls. Sellers said that solution was used in the winter of 2016-17 in the Denver area and proved useful. That solution will be used on the I-70 corridor this winter.
Sellers said motorists who grew up along the U.S. East Coast have called and emailed, worried that the new solution will cause their cars to rust as they do in states where traction sand is used.
Sellers said the pre-treating solution — which is mixed in the Denver area — has an anti-corrosive ingredient and is also environmentally safe.
Work draws praise
Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan is the vice chairwoman of the I-70 Coalition Board of Directors. That group, made up of local governments and businesses along the corridor, works with the state to help keep the highway flowing.
Ryan said she’s been impressed with the success CDOT has had over the past three winters.
“It seems like it’s been so much better,” Ryan said. “They’ve been very strategic in their plans. … They’ve been a good partner to the I-70 Coalition.”
Ryan said the department has plans for road improvements on the corridor, but funding isn’t sufficient to make those plans a reality.
One big element of those plans is a climbing lane for eastbound I-70 up Vail Pass. That would be a great help, Ryan said, but the cost would be in the tens of millions.
Ryan said CDOT’s Bustang service between Denver and the mountains can be a bigger help during ski season if it can be expanded to run more frequently on the weekends.
But the fact remains that there’s no money for big construction projects. A study a few years ago determined that a train from Denver to the high country is technically feasible, but the cost of that project is billions of dollars the state doesn’t have.
Given that reality, traffic has to flow on the highway as it exists now.
I-70 Coalition Executive Director Margaret Bowes agreed with Ryan that the strategies and tactics are working well.
Still, there hasn’t been a storm to equal that of Feb. 2, 2014, on a go-home day since.
“Mother Nature still rules,” Bowes said. “But [CDOT is] doing what they can to be prepared.”
Sellers said drivers can help state crews when big storms hit.
“We always encourage people that if the storm is that bad, please stay home,” Sellers said.