Incredibly, there were actually fewer hard closures along the Interstate 70 corridor this past ski season compared to the season before, but state highway officials say the duration of those closures was a lot longer.
Anecdotally at least, it seemed as if I-70 between Vail and Denver was shut down more than it was open this season – an unhappy result of a very happy, snowy season for skiers, if they actually could reach their favorite resorts.
“There have been longer durations of some of these closures, but the amount of closures haven’t reached where they’ve been, at least the last year,” said Phil Amderle, real-time traffic and incident manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
There were 50 hard closures along the I-70 mountain corridor during 2012-13, Amderle said, compared to 33 so far in 2013-14, and Loveland Pass was closed 50 times in 2012-13 compared to 42 so far this season.
But there have been monumental episodes such as Feb. 9, when some drivers reported drive times of up to nine hours between Vail and Denver – a 100-mile trip that typically takes two hours.
“I think that’s going to begin to hurt Colorado as people look to places that have a great lifestyle and part of that lifestyle is easy access to recreation,” Vail Mayor Andy Daly told Real Vail. “We’ve got some vulnerability, and if we don’t address I-70, it’s going to be just another competitive disadvantage for Colorado as it tries to compete with the likes of Utah.”
Utah, while it has far fewer ski resorts and hosts only about a third of Colorado’s 12 million or so skier days, boasts much shorter drive times to mountain resorts. The majority of the state’s best ski areas are a 30- to 40-minute drive from Salt Lake City.
Amderle says that even though the number of closures was actually down despite a good snow year, the state is taking significant steps to curtail both the number and length of closures along the I-70 corridor between Denver and Vail.
“The one outlier is the extended length of some of the closures and part of that is by design, that we’re getting our snowplows ahead of traffic before we release them to make sure that the road is in condition so that it doesn’t close again once we let traffic out on it,” Amderle said.
“But then some of them haven’t been because of getting snowplows out,” he added. “They’ve simply been because of truck accidents that take longer to clean up and get the lanes reopened.”
Daly has suggested a menu of options for dealing with I-70 closures, including limiting truck traffic and banning double tractor trailers during peak skier-traffic periods such as Friday and Sunday afternoons from December to March.
“There are a couple of things that I’m going to work on with other mayors, the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, as well as Colorado Ski Country, to really see if we can’t put some pressure on the governor and the state to begin to restrict trucks on I-70, particularly Friday evenings, Saturday during busy periods and again Sunday on busy periods,” Daly said.
“That’s a sticky wicket right there,” Amderle said. “You start interfering with interstate commerce and people’s ability to make money the way they make money. I think there would be a lot of pushback [from truckers] for that.
“I’m not saying that it couldn’t be done, but generally what I hear is government is too involved and making too many rules for everybody now, so if that was something that we wanted to pursue, I don’t think it would be a sprint to get there. It’s going to be a marathon.”
Daly also thinks there may need to be more comprehensive traction checks for both commercial and private passenger vehicles and more enforcement of chain laws that stiffly penalize people for spinning out and closing the road if they’re not equipped with snow tires, chains or four-wheel drive. Truckers can be hit with up to a $1,000 fine, although some still proceed unchained.
“For private motorists, if they go up on the pass, then if they don’t have adequate tires, they have to stop until they get the green light to go up when it’s clear and sanded,” Daly suggested.
Amderle said there was more enforcement and ticketing this season – as well as more relocation of spun-out vehicles by the I-70 courtesy patrols — and that strategies such as releasing vehicles in waves eastbound between Silverthorne and the Eisenhower Tunnel also reduced closure times.
But the issue of stepped-up traction checks for both commercial and private passenger vehicles is high on a list of state options for next season.
“That’s a very valid concern,” Amderle said. “So if we could get a portion of those violators – personal vehicles not using alternate traction devices or appropriate tread on their tires – then word’s going to get out and more people are going to be aware that if they don’t, they’re going to potentially get a ticket.”
Amderle said CDOT will have an internal meeting with staff members from operations, maintenance and engineering, come up with a plan and release it to stakeholders on the I-70 Coalition for input. A new plan for better dealing with closures should be released to the public by September, he added.
In the meantime, CDOT is hosting a telephone town hall to get input from the impacted driving public on any and all transportation issues affecting residents of Eagle, Garfield, Lake, Pitkin and Summit counties.
At 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 1, residents of west central Colorado will be called at random through an automated system and invited to take part in a telephone forum. Anyone who wants to participate but did not receive a call can dial in, toll-free, at (877) 229-8493,PIN 112034. Participants can also use their keypad to answer live polls.