By Dan Luzadder
DENVER Ask almost anyone waiting in the ski-lift line
some weekend at Loveland, a popular Front Range ski resort
60 miles west of Denver, and youre likely to hear the
same tale of woe.
For most, the weekend commute on Interstate 70
from metro Denver to mountain ski areas for a day of recreation
starts very much like a day at work fighting rush
You learn to start really early if you are going to
beat the rush, said Kevin Wright, who works at the Loveland
Ski Area. And you learn which side roads can take you
around the bad traffic.
On winter and summer weekends, traffic crawls for miles bumper
to bumper along the Interstate, much to the detriment of the
states tourist trade. Summer visitors and winter skiers,
snowmobile riders and backcountry enthusiasts are increasingly
frustrated over spending twice as much time as it once took
to get to their mountain destinations and back.
Years of startling population growth in Colorado, delayed
attention by state policymakers to growing needs for new roads,
and now tight budgets in the wake of the economic downturn
have slowed things down on many highways in the state.
But congestion along I-70 is more than an inconvenience.
The I-70 corridor, which crosses the Continental Divide and
runs more than 450 miles across the state from Kansas to Utah,
is an economic lifeline. It carries not only millions of tourists,
but also truck traffic that depends on the corridor to link
East Coast to West Coast.
Residents in mountain towns that abut the highway
and others in the state have pressured state officials
to consider mass transit to mitigate the traffic snarls, using
light rail or a high-speed monorail to carry people into the
But decisions by the Colorado Department of Transportation
and the Federal Highway Administration late last year
after extensive environmental impact studies have leaned
away from mass transit and toward widening I-70 from four
lanes through the narrow canyons along the highway.
Dennis Lunberry, mayor of Idaho Springs, a mining and tourist
town that once thrived on traffic from U.S. 40 before it was
absorbed into the Interstate, said I-70 congestion is causing
new economic problems for his constituents.
The trouble is drivers get frustrated and end up not
wanting to get off the highway to eat dinner or shop or even
get a cup of coffee, because these delays have made them anxious
to get where they are going, Lunberry mused. Its
something that, believe me, is vigorously discussed around
Residents of Idaho Springs and their highway neighbors - Georgetown,
Dumont, Lawson, Empire, Silver Plume and other small towns
along the corridor - have adapted their schedules and lifestyles
around traffic patterns.
People learn not to go out of their houses during peak
traffic hours, said JoAnn Sorensen, a county commissioner
in Clear Creek County and one of many local leaders who have
tried, unsuccessfully, to push for a mass transit solution.
In Idaho Springs, widening the highway from its current 78
feet would encroach even more on the town of 2,000, Mayor
Lunberry said. A tiered highway would take up at least 84
feet and widening to six lanes would require 112 feet, he
If that happens, the towns well-known historic wooden
waterwheel, a tourist landmark for decades, might have to
come down, he said. A good number of homes of long-time residents
would also be in harms way, as would the high school
Lunberry sees an elevated railway as a long-term solution
that would avoid damage to local businesses and the environment.
The asphalt-based solutions that the state is pushing
wont begin to solve the congestion, he said.
Given the states ongoing growth, by the time
they are finished with widening projects, by 2012, the problem
will be ten times what it is now. They wont have solved
The states preliminary recommendations call for widening
portions of I-70 to six lanes at a cost of $2 billion. Tom
Norton, CDOTs director, says the price tag for an elevated
high-speed railway would be $5 billion to $9 billion and is
too high unless stakeholders find outside, private
financing, which all admit is unlikely.
The state now will complete environmental impact statements
on the widening project, with public hearings this spring.
A final decision is likely a couple of years away.
The vote of no confidence in mass transit has a number of
Colorado government officials on edge and in some cases
on the phone to Washington, D.C. Miller Hudson, who heads
a group exploring the monorail alternative, insists that highway
authorities pulled the trigger too soon.
Some advocates for a monorail to the Western Slope using the
I-70 median acknowledge that the idea seems dead, but Sorensen
of Clear Creek County insists we are not giving up.
She says that holding the states feet to the fire over
mass transit between Denver and Eagle County on the Western
Slope is necessary because more is at stake than ski-resort
losses. The impact on local residents cant be ignored,
It seems like on weekends we are already close to gridlock,
Sorensen said. And some of the solutions that people
have been pointing out over the years, flexible work weeks,
midweek promotions at resorts, incentives for resort users
to use bus transportation rather than private vehicles
been promoted very well.
She is urging state officials to look further down the road.
In our communities there are not a lot of options to
replace housing if highways are widened, Sorensen said.
Were constrained by the typography. The people
who will be replaced are the people who work at the restaurants,
who volunteer for the fire department and who do service jobs
at the resorts. State officials need to ask, Who will
Meanwhile, some ski areas are coming up with ways to cope
with bad traffic: overnight hotel accommodations cheap enough
to keep metro-area skiers from commuting home after a day
on the slopes, and flextime skiing with a half-day lift ticket
that can be used any four hours of the day.