Vail I-70 tunnel revisited |

Vail I-70 tunnel revisited

This conceptual image by local architect Sig Bjornson shows how Interstate 70, its frontage roads and a rail line could be squeezed into a tighter space through Vail. Bjornson's idea calls for building six tunnels through Vail instead of one giant one.

This plan:

• Anticipates 6.27 miles of construction.

• Six tunnels would be built.

• 130.5 acres would be freed up for development and open space.

• Eliminates the need to excavate and ship out almost six million cubic yards of dirt.

VAIL — Interstate 70 came through this town in the 1970s. Ever since, people have talked about the highway in double-edged terms and wondered about ways to hide the thing.

The Vail Homeowners Association Thursday heard a presentation from local architect Sig Bjornson about covering up the interstate. This is a long-term plan that would take years, if not decades to create. But, Bjornson said, his ideas improve upon older ideas about hiding the interstate.

The town last took a fairly serious look at burying I-70 in about 2005. The idea then was for a miles-long tunnel that would need a hole 104 feet wide and 36 feet deep. A portion of the millions of cubic yards of dirt would be used for the tunnel cover.

But the bulk of that dirt would have to be hauled out, requiring about 50 trucks per hour for four years to haul the material away.

“I doubt any of us (in the room) will be alive to see this.”

Jim Lamont
director, Vail Homeowners Association

Between the disruption to the town and the cost — roughly $3.6 billion in 2005 dollars — the idea never went far.

A better idea?

Bjornson’s better idea — which he’s been pondering for some time, on his own time — starts with the amount of excavation needed. In theory, the amount of dirt dug would be enough to cover the structure, with little, if any, left over.

Then there’s the idea of the size of hole — or holes — to dig. Instead of one tunnel seven miles long, Bjornson’s idea creates six tunnels.

Those holes would be narrower, and more shallow, than the 2005 plan, compressing the roughly 300-foot width of I-70 and the frontage roads down to about 124 feet, with the frontage roads atop the structures.

There would also be room in the tunnels for “advanced guideway” rail lines to both the east and west.

By narrowing the highway right of way, Bjornson estimated that roughly 130 acres of real estate would be “liberated” for other needs, from housing to commercial development to open space. Building wouldn’t be allowed atop the roadway, but that could be used for more open space or outdoor recreation.

Given its location, the “liberated” real estate would be pretty valuable. It could be worth perhaps $400 million by Bjornson’s estimates.

The price tag

That’s a lot of money, of course, but it would be only a down payment on the project. In an email after the meeting, Bjornson estimated that the cost of simply building the tunnels would be roughly $3.6 billion — with other costs adding significantly to the project’s price tag.

Bjornson’s email noted that most “cut and cover” highway projects are usually 90 to 95 percent federally funded, with the state contributing the rest and communities pitching in 2 percent. Vail would be able to contribute roughly 12 percent of the project’s cost.

Possible timeline

Even with a bigger-than-normal contribution, the prospects are slim of accomplishing anything any time soon, especially given that the Colorado Department of Transportation doesn’t have much of a budget to fund any new projects, much less very expensive ones. Widening Interstate 25 from Castle Rock to Palmer Lake is an estimated $500 million project, and no one knows where that money might come from.

Regardless, some at the meeting warmly greeted Bjornson’s plan.

Vail Homeowners Association board of directors President Gail Ellis was perhaps the most enthusiastic.

“I wish we could bid this out tomorrow,” Ellis said.

Vail Mayor Dave Chapin took a more long-term view, saying that having at least the outline of a project will be an essential document to have if funds are available in the future.

But group member Howard Berkowitz isn’t sure about the need for covering the interstate.

“I’ve had a home in Vail for 30 years, and the interstate has never bothered me once,” Berkowitz said. Acknowledging the idea as a “wonderful way to access Vail,” Berkowitz added, “I don’t see the need for this. It’s not going to help the valley.”

Vail Homeowners Association Director Jim Lamont is a longtime advocate of hiding I-70. Lamont said he was intrigued by the idea. But he added, any action is far in the future.

“I doubt any of us [in the room] will be alive to see this,” he said.

Vail Daily’s Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, and @scottnmiller.

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