Vail Pass project will be complicated, expensive
When it was finished in 1978, Interstate 70 over Vail Pass was a key element in linking eastern and western Colorado. Today, the west side of Vail Pass is a frequent, literal roadblock in Colorado’s transportation system.
The eastbound lanes often close because of weather or stricken vehicles, and the westbound lanes mix very fast and very slow vehicles with sometimes-deadly results.
The Colorado Department of Transportation for years has been looking at ways to make the 10-mile stretch of highway from East Vail to the top of Vail Pass more safe and more efficient.
That planning started years ago, and there’s no final plan, but transportation officials now are working on an environmental analysis of a plan that would add a third lane to both the eastbound and westbound lanes on the west side of the pass.
Martha Miller is the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Program Engineer for the eastern portion of the department’s Region 3, which covers much of western Colorado.
Miller said the idea behind the project is to both add capacity and enhance safety. On the westbound, downhill side, a third lane could help separate fast, less-fast and slow traffic, making the highway safer.
The same is kind of true on the eastbound side, where heavy trucks crawl up the pass. Most passenger vehicles these days can make the steep climb going roughly the speed limit.
But the real safety and traffic benefits come in case of accidents. If there’s an accident or incident that closes one lane, state policy calls for closing the adjacent lane to keep emergency responders safe from traffic. If there are only two lanes available, both lanes close.
That leads to full closures of the highway. In the case of serious accidents, those closures can last for hours.
A third lane would keep traffic flowing.
Improving the west side of Vail Pass will be the focus of a Thursday meeting at the Vail Golf Club clubhouse.
Expanding the highway would also correct some flaws in the original design, which dates to the early 1970s. Sharp curves need to be smoothed, and the highway needs to better coexist with wildlife and Gore Creek.
Then there’s the change in what we want highways to do.
“The expectation (today) is that people will have mobility on I-70,” Miller said. “That’s a hard expectation to meet sometimes.”
Any I-70 expansion has to take all those elements into consideration.
That’s going to be expensive. The current estimate for the entire project — which includes more than 20 new bridges — is roughly $750 million.
That money will be hard to come by.
Miller noted that state officials late last year came up with a package of $1.6 billion for projects around all of Colorado, from road repair to new projects.
That money is important, since the state hasn’t raised its gas tax since the 1980s, and the last federal fuel tax increase came in the early 1990s. Voters over the years have rejected several ideas for raising more money for transportation.
Even with last year’s funding boost, the Vail Pass project isn’t getting half of that pot of money.
Miller said the influx of funds from 2019 has to be spread around, with much of the funding in this region going to rural roads.
“There are a lot of roads we haven’t touched in 20 years,” Miller said.
But there’s a regional appreciation of the need to get the Vail Pass project done.
The transportation department breaks the state down into “transportation planning regions.” The Vail Pass project is at the top of the to-do list in this region. The I-70 Coalition, a group of local governments and businesses, has Vail Pass as the second-most important project in the corridor between Golden and Dotsero. The highway on Floyd Hill is at the top of that group’s list.
Miller said that representatives of other counties in the planning region have all agreed to forsake some of their funding to get the Vail Pass project rolling.
In addition, the state has applied for a $100 million federal grant for Vail Pass. But if that grant comes through, the state has only a good down payment on the entire project.
Miller said getting the Vail Pass project done will probably look like the process of getting State Highway 82 finished in the Roaring Fork Valley. That project was done in phases over several years.
If Vail Pass has to be done in phases, Miller said the first part of the work will likely start about halfway between East Vail and the top of the pass. Getting the entire project done could take years.
Getting money for one phase or another “is what we can do right now,” Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition, said. “It’s tough when voters keep rejecting raising money for transportation,” Bowes said.
But lack of funding doesn’t affect the need, Bowes added.
“Like the Eisenhower Tunnel, Vail Pass is a huge gateway,” Bowes said. “It’s critical to the movement of goods and services.”
Vail Pass was closed for one reason or another 63 times in 2019, Bowes noted. “You can guess the impact of that.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.
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“From my perspective, with the economy going as it is, if there’s a good time to ask for a tax increase it’s probably now,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said.