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Interstate 70 between Denver and Vail has become virtually unusable during the winter months if there’s even the slightest precipitation on the road – and it’s no longer just a weekend phenomenon.
Although Saturday was another prime example of just how gridlocked I-70 has become on winter weekends, underscoring the need for drastic changes in how Colorado’s key east-west transit corridor is managed.
But unnecessary and inexplicably lengthy closures now seem to occur every day of the week, including the morning of Friday, March 7, when another small amount of new snow shut down the westbound Eisenhower Tunnel approaches.
Then westbound I-70 was closed again this past Saturday for long stretches both in the morning and late afternoon/early evening, and Vail reported a mere two inches of new snow – the very definition of dust on crust skiing.
If you were one of the “lucky” snow riders who got through before the morning closure – reportedly caused by yet another jackknifed semi – you were treated to very little new snow on top of a seriously firm, sunbaked base.
It’s one thing to brave insane traffic for deep powder skiing, quite another to face hours trapped on the interstate for marginal conditions. But a snowstorm that’s hardly worth the effort for snow riders is all it takes to shut down the highway for hours these days, even during the week.
This has been one of the worst seasons ever for closures on I-70 in the more than two decades I’ve lived in Eagle County, and the skier numbers aren’t that much higher than they used to be back in the 1990s.
What’s new is what I call the “Idiot Factor.”
There’s a deadly combination of disrespect and cluelessness about mountain driving conditions, leading to hundreds of motorists who don’t have the skills or the equipment (four-wheel drive, proper snow tires, tire chains) to be heading over 10,000-foot mountain passes like the Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass during any kind of snow event, no matter how mundane.
This includes commercial vehicles from semis driven by warm-weather truckers willing to roll the dice and risk a fine by driving unchained to bus drivers who should be part of the solution (getting cars off the road) but instead become a major part of the problem by skidding out on steep inclines.
And then there are the countless drivers of private vehicles who should not even be allowed up the passes in certain conditions. They don’t know how to drive in snow, how to react once they lose traction and what do when their bald-tired sedan built for the flatlands goes sideways.
Put them all together on a busy holiday weekend, add just a little bit of ice and snow, and it’s all over. The interstate will shut down for three, four, even five hours at a stretch. Which brings me to the extremely hardworking and conscientious first responders who do an incredible job of mopping up the mess but need to be more focused on prevention.
Let’s eliminate the “Idiot Factor” in the first place by setting up traction checks for all vehicles and not allow them up the passes in any kind snow. Sell them chains, charge them to put them on, and then force them to follow a pilot car at 45 mph over the pass.
Even in my four-wheel-drive SUV with snow tires I’d rather creep along at that speed and eventually make it in three hours than be able to do 60 until some idiot crashes and everything’s shut down for the day.
Because besides not having the right equipment, the I-70 idiots also drive way too fast for the conditions, and then inevitably someone decides they like the left lane even though they’re going 40 – often a trucker who shouldn’t be passing at all – and that’s all it takes to clog everything up and potentially shut everything down.
It used to be a pretty solid rule that if you got on the road before noon on Sunday you could get to Denver no problem, no matter the weather, but that’s no longer true. Last month on Feb. 9 we tried to go down to a Denver event and hit the road at 10 a.m. in Eagle.
Five hours later we got to Silverthorne, a distance of 60 miles. We wound up going to a movie to wait it out, but when we came out of the theaters the highway was still closed. We drove back to Eagle, our trip to the city destroyed by terrible management of the highway.
It took some people eight hours to navigate the 100 miles between Vail and Denver that day – a major public safety and economic concern that has to be addressed next ski season.
There’s also a lack of urgency in clearing the idiots out of the way. Just like an accident alert in the city, investigation should be low-priority. Just have people exchange insurance info and drag the cars to the shoulder if they’re broken down.
Courtesy patrols can then give drivers a ride to somewhere warm and they can return the next day with a tow truck. Price you pay for being unprepared.
According to a Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) press release after that debacle on Feb. 9, “CDOT’s Heavy Tow program towed 11 commercial vehicles that lost traction on the steep approach to Eisenhower Tunnel, three of which did not employ chains as required by law.”
Heavy fines were levied, no doubt, but they should never have been allowed up the passes in the first place. Clearly the fines are not a deterrent. In fact, I don’t care how strong the trucking lobby is, Sundays during the winter need to be a day of rest. Head up to I-80 or down to I-40 if you really have to get through, but don’t try I-70 in a snowstorm on a Sunday afternoon.
Ditto idiots in private vehicles.
According to the same CDOT release, “On Sunday, Feb. 9, CDOT’s Courtesy Patrol program relocated 22 vehicles on eastbound I-70 between Silverthorne and Eisenhower Tunnel. Of the 22 vehicles, 19 had bald tires and 18 had in-state plates. The 22 were only a small fraction of the spun-out vehicles that needed assistance, which contributed to the heavy congestion and delayed commute for motorists last Sunday.”
For the record, I never spun out once that day. I had the right car, the right tires, but I was surrounded by the “Idiot Factor.” And I include myself for even being there and trying to go to Denver to spend my money at some city events and restaurants. This “idiot” will never try that again, and increasingly I’m questioning heading down on weekdays as well, even in the summer.
Ridiculous construction projects that are merely slapping on a Band-Aid, like the current Twin Tunnels “widening” that’s not even adding another lane, have made summer travel a joke as well. And the same idiots in the winter seems to be just as capable of crashing on dry pavement too.
But I digress. This is a major economic issue, and we need to start treating it that way (more on that in future blog posts) by putting some serious prohibitions in place to mitigate the “Idiot Factor.” Here’s a list of suggestions from that same CDOT release. I say “yes, all of the above” to the entire list. Time to take this matter far more seriously than we currently do.
Let me know your thoughts:
• Improve passenger vehicle traction through possible sale of chains and alternative traction devices at chain stations and on ramps at Silverthorne, Frisco Copper Mountain, and Vail.
• Schedule more CDOT snow plow crews to supplement the existing crews in Summit County and Clear Creek County.
• Work with the ski resorts and car rental companies to ensure that passenger vehicle traction devices are available for purchase by their customers and the customers are aware of their availability.
• Work with Colorado State Patrol to conduct passenger vehicle traction checks at on ramps to eastbound I-70 at Silverthorne, Frisco, Copper Mountain, and Vail.
• Implement traffic control at ski resorts to manage volume prior to vehicles leaving the resort to reduce the delays, stranded vehicles, accidents and spin outs on routes to I-70.
• When conditions require, eliminate eastbound hazmat carrier escorts through Eisenhower Tunnel, when Loveland Pass is closed, beginning at 9AM and resuming when delays have subsided.
• When conditions require, close eastbound I-70 to commercial motor vehicles at Dotsero when road conditions and traffic volumes are such that a public safety emergency is likely and imminent.
• Expand CDOT’s I-70 West Courtesy Patrol to aid and assist stranded motorists with disabled vehicles.
• Continue tunnel safety metering at Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels to ensure tunnel is safe for emergency vehicles.
• When necessary, escort traffic from Silverthorne to Georgetown to ensure safe driving speeds on the route and when exiting Eisenhower Tunnel.
• Continue to promote traveler information as well as encourage travelers to Change their Peak Time and take advantage of deals available at GoI70.com.
March 17, 2014 at 12:29 pm
I left for Denver from Gl. Spr. in October @ 5 PM to catch a midnight flight to Boston. After spending 5 hours on the approach to Vail pass I missed my flight and re-scheduling cost me $100. Given that as well as parking and fuel cost I could probably flown out of Eagle for less, never mind the extreme aggravation. I learned my lesson and will never drive to Denver again to catch a flight. Even if it appears to be $200 – 250 cheaper, it really isn’t. And it’s always dispiriting to finally see Denver as you descend from the mts. and know that you’re still 45 minutes from the airport!
You are absolutely correct about the “Idiot Factor”.
March 17, 2014 at 6:01 pm
Pilot cars, really? Anyone who experienced this insanely stupid “experiment” by CDOT a few years ago in person quickly understood that it became part of the problem and was far from being a solution.
Let’s do the simple things:
Enforce the “passing only” in the left lane law aggressively against “left lane lurkers” and ticket them as much as possible.
And aggressively enforce proper equipment laws for truckers as well as requiring snow tires for all passenger vehicles during the winter months.
“Safe driving speeds” is a meaningless phrase, by the way, It’s space, not speed, and speed is much less of an issue for experienced winter drivers with the proper equipment than for a non-experienced drivers with summer tires.
I certainly do not want to be stuck behind the state patrol (as I was several times during their pilot car “experiment”) when they are going a “speed” designed for the lowest common denominator. We already know how that worked out and what a disaster that was. DO NOT BRING THIS PROGRAM BACK.
Of course, as CDOT and everyone else knows, the real solution is a train like the one from the Geneva airport to Verbier. But we’ll never get that. CDOT lives for pavement.
April 1, 2014 at 7:10 pm
Tom, there are just two many cars for the amount of road during peak times, impossible to enforce even the simplest laws.
March 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm
What about a big public transportation system, like trains or buses?
March 17, 2014 at 7:05 pm
As a 30 year Vail Valley resident who raised the I-70 issues 25 years ago and have CDOT laugh at me and not even (as I suggested) call together a group of people to discuss potential issues….I have no sympathy for this issue.
I think Colorado has now got exactly what it deserves…….it’s a state that loves to feast off the spoils of growth and not plan for the future.
I saw this in the loss of the service base in Vail where the waiters and waitresses couldn’t even get to the restaurants to wait on the people demanding service…..to the ski instructors who had to live 40 miles from the mountains they want to teach on. It’s all just about greed and not building a sustainable state.
March 17, 2014 at 10:52 pm
I completely agree that traction/chain enforcement is sadly lacking. We headed westbound at 3:00pm on Feb 7th and there were a number of trucks running both ways unchained despite the requirement to have chains on. And we got to spend 3 hours stuck… which I guess isn’t so bad.
Compare it to Donner Pass in California — there, the CHP has real checks. On our way back, it was raining, no snow, but every semi was forced to exit and show they HAD chains. And when it’s really snowing, the same thing applies for cars. Even AWD vehicles only get to avoid chains/carrying chains if they have snow tires, so there’s none of this “fly into Denver, rent SUV of invulnerability, race up the mountain” baloney.
Enforcement and stiff penalties — including impoundment of commercial vehicles WILL work when coupled together.
April 27, 2018 at 2:43 pm
Not unlike Calif dot, codot has a lot to learn about snow clearing, traffic management, enforcent. We why do snow plows run up/down hills no plow down, not spreading pleanty of salt-maginsum laden sand, why spread salt water to an already frozen ice road, or just temp close the road until snow/ice is cleared, pleanty of sand is down and enforcement is in place, as well as wreckers and any other workers. Prep the roads before the storm hits by spraying The roads with salt/magnesium. Storm comes, àll hands on deck. I nicknamed The state due to poor snow Control, Colofornia dot.
March 18, 2014 at 12:12 am
Build a toll tunnel from Georgetown to silverthorne
Then one from copper to vail
We are a mining state
It will create jobs
It will be paid for by tolls
March 18, 2014 at 1:36 am
I would like to see traffic lights at the start (a few miles before near an off-ramp) of each Pass to regulate traffic flow. You could also get inspections happening at this point if the weather is getting bad. The main reason on this is that only so many vehicles can get through each hour, you can also get around idiots who lose control much easier. Proper Electronic signs which can be adjusted for speed limit control according to conditions. More driving signage is required to advise drivers (especially Novice) truckers what speed they should be at and gear ratios. If they all started there decent slowly, and I mean slow at 5 MPH until they got halfway down the hills, it would only take an extra 5 minutes, That is the steepest part. and then they would have no problem after that. Going uphill is a little more difficult because of the trailer action on the tractor, it lifts at the fifth wheel and does not always have traction. So why not have the heavy tow guys pull them up. however that may cost too much, but I am always amazed that they can just pick up a truck and pull it with out much problem. I have only seen one truck get to the Eisenhower tunnel from Silverthorne without chains, although he knew what he was doing it was not fun watching his attempt. In the end it is not a normal length of road, it needs way more respect than it gets. I have driven it several hundred times through all conditions and never had a problem, it just takes time and patience and is extra nice if the Road is closed just behind you and have the whole corridor to yourself.
To describe the ‘Idiot Factor’. one day Vail pass had been closed all afternoon and only just managed to reopen as I was leaving, I got through the closed road signs but so was everyone else and instead of regulating the traffic up the pass, everyone ended up in a smash ’em Derby and guess what, the road was once again closed. So who is to blame?
March 18, 2014 at 5:15 am
The chain control stations in California worked extremely well. Everybody complained about them (myself included), nobody liked them, but they worked extremely well. The regulatory system for chain installers worked well, too. Every chain installer (aka “chain monkey”) had a business license and wore a very distinctive vest with a large number. If something went wrong with the chain installation, the motorist had a way of tracking down the chain installer to resolve the issue. Putting on chains for people was a great source of extra income for anyone willing to get out in the cold and do a little honest work, and they earned their money.
March 18, 2014 at 9:29 am
The CDOT should really come out to CA and see how it’s done. Every major road into the mountains has a chain station. Every vehicle gets a quick inspection. My Outback always gets flagged through except when the road is glazed with ice which is common in CA where we have to drive through several climate zones to get at the skiing. I’ve got my chains but almost never have actually been told to put them on. But others must put on chains or have the chain guys put them on for you. They even sell chains for the completely unprepared. In CO we still drive according to the “live free or die” motto. But how’s that really working out on I-70?
March 31, 2014 at 1:53 pm
Agreed. I-70 is the best advertisement going for Utah skiing for those seeking an uncomplicated trip to their destination.
March 18, 2014 at 11:50 am
This is an economic catastrophe waiting to happen. Ski Areas across the state may see a dramatic dip in Front Range pass sales because of I-70 driving experiences this winter. The spill over effect will less sales tax collection in every mountain community on the Western Slope. Colorado Tourism, Governors office, Colorado Ski Country USA should all be pressuring CDOT to put controls in place. California High Sierras have solved this problem and so have many of the ski corridors throughout Europe. No reinvention of the wheel is necessary just the political will to enact programs (through legislation) that have already proven to be effective.
March 18, 2014 at 9:27 pm
Flawed basic premiss.
You’re not in I-70 traffic, you ARE I-70 traffic!
Epic pass must die!
Make it like Donner Pass!
March 31, 2014 at 11:27 pm
No significant skier number increases????
2008 = 200,000 Epic Passes Sold
2013 = 350,000 Epic Passes Sold
Skier numbers have definitely increased!
I-70 needs an Inspection Station like they have on I-80 near Donner Pass. If you do not have snow tires, chains, or 4WD……YOU CANNOT PROCEED!
I had to rent a car recently in Frisco, and was appalled at the shape of the tires on this rental car! These are the same cars that are rented to people that have NO CLUE how to drive in the snow.
Also, ski areas should be forced to chip in for the solution, b/c they ARE the problem. But, I am sure since Vail Resorts withdrew from Colorado Ski Country USA organization…….they won’t spend a dime!
April 1, 2014 at 9:02 am
We spend our summers in Colo. Texans, However I did live in Vail in 88/89 During first World Championships there, I-70 was a problem, then now even in summers, I usually hire a drive with all right equip that I would not have. I fly out more now. And this brings up very serious issues. I agree with all of them. Which is why I haven’t skiied in this area for a decade, and thinking NOT a good place to live IF you must leave area sometimes, as I do, and so do others. Better to live where less expensive and better access to airports as needed. Hard to say that as I love this area, why moving this year to either here or another area. Probably won’t be here now. AS I won’t see it working on 1-70 in my active lifetime. SAD.
April 1, 2014 at 7:12 pm
Nice column, Dave, and some great suggestions from readers. I posted a link on Facebook and it went kind of mini-viral, along with a few more comments: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10152064761009779&id=365372650163&comment_id=30047640&offset=0&total_comments=6¬if_t=share_comment
Lil Jimmy Norton
April 2, 2014 at 10:02 am
Great article. The traffic this year has been absolutely ridiculous and it’s why I’ve taken my money to other places like Crested Butte, Loveland, Monarch and Alta/Snowbird. I’m sure many other people are going to do the same. I’ve barely skied Vail b/c of how bad the traffic’s been and end up at Loveland and all it’s great snow. So it has worked out, but the idiot factor is so enraging I cannot describe it. Huge fines need to be levied, AWD/4WD or chains need to be a law for ALL vehicles, like in Ut, CA and WA. Why the hell hasn’t CO done this? Wake UP