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Lines form long before reaching Colorado ski lifts

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 you’re 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 hour” traffic.

“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 state’s 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 mountains.

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. “It’s something that, believe me, is vigorously discussed around here.”

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 said.

If that happens, the town’s 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 harm’s way, as would the high school football field.

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 won’t begin to solve the congestion,” he said.

“Given the state’s ongoing growth, by the time they are finished with widening projects, by 2012, the problem will be ten times what it is now. They won’t have solved a thing.”

The state’s preliminary recommendations call for widening portions of I-70 to six lanes at a cost of $2 billion. Tom Norton, CDOT’s 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 state’s 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 can’t be ignored, she said.

“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…haven’t 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.

“We’re 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 replace them?’ ”

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.