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With Winter Snow, CDOT Again Tackles The Problem Of I-70

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Nathan Heffel
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KUNC
A snowplow sits ready at a CDOT maintance shed outside Gypsum, Colorado.

As winter arrives in Colorado, a familiar friend came to town with it: winter driving. Traffic between Denver and the Vail Valley is notorious in the cold months, but Colorado's Department of Transportation said they’re ready for another long winter. But is there a permanent solution to the Interstate 70 problem, or are we doomed to more long delays and closures?

“We have more plow trucks and drivers gearing up to provide the best customer service we can,” said Jared Morgan, a maintenance patrol supervisor in Summit County. “We’d like to remind motorists to take their time, leave extra room behind our plow trucks and let us clear the way. And please have vehicles well prepared for these winter events — snow tires are a must.”

Data from CDOT shows that between September 2013 and January 2014 - which saw a series of strong snow storms - Interstate 70 between Denver and Silverthorne closed 59 times.

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Credit Colorado Department of Transportation / Flickr-Used with permission
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Flickr-Used with permission
Traffic backs up near the Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnels on Interstate 70.

CDOT Spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said the agency is taking many new initiatives to make traveling the corridor safer and easier, including more ramp metering on highway entrances.

Ramp metering is widely seen across the Denver Metro area, stop lights regulate traffic merging during peak driving times. Copper Mountain, Silverthorne, and Frisco will all see ramp metering.

“It’s really about taking the flow of traffic and making it a little bit more continuous,” Trulove said.

During closures on I-70 near the Eisenhower and Johnson Tunnels, Trulove said metering traffic during peak hours at the tunnel forced trucks to stop on the steep 7 percent grade outside Silverthorne. Trulove said that caused numerous spinouts and stalled trucks.

“So now this year when we have to use continuous flow metering [at the tunnel], we’re going to actually stop cars at mile marker 207 on a little bit flatter grade so people can actually get started again when they need to go.”

Further along I-70, infamous choke points exist at either end of the Vail Valley with Glenwood Canyon to the east, or Vail Pass to the west. Eagle's Mayor, Yuri Kostick, said during especially long winter closures the traffic can be backed up from Vail Pass all the way to Dotsero – a distance of 56 miles.

“Trucks are a big problem because they’re not prepared, and they get in big trouble with this weather," Kostick said. "And it’s difficult to take an 18 wheeler to 10,000 feet over the Rocky Mountains.”

Margaret Bowes with the I-70 Coalition – a group that includes the towns of Breckenridge, Idaho Springs, Leadville, Silverthorne and Vail – knows that there is a "strong public perception that trucks are the problem." 

"There's no silver bullet type thing. It's the silver buckshot."

There have been calls for banning trucks during peak congestion in the winter months or using lane restrictions. Bowes said the deeper problem lies in why the trucks are on the road in the first place.

“Trucks that are on this corridor during the weekend are on the corridor because someone in the mountain communities have requested a delivery on Sunday,” she said. “So I think there is a community component that we need to look at, and how we are requesting goods to be delivered.”

Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association agrees, with limited storage space available in the high country consumer goods and fuel need to be continually delivered to serve the throngs of visitors to the area each winter.

“We really don’t have a choice, we don’t have a level of discretion that maybe people who are going for recreation have," Fulton said. "Many cases we’re going to serve the same communities in those areas in the high country and the ski areas who would wish to bar us from being on there.”

Fulton said the trucking industry is the main delivery system for towns along the I-70 mountain corridor, and when they need supplies, his industry is the one they call.

“I don’t think this is a situation where we should look at this like ‘Survivor’ and we vote the person off the island that we don’t like out there.”

All three groups are urging the public to take ownership of the problem, and help create a viable and cost effective solution. The I-70 Coalition's Margaret Bowes believes reducing congestion during peak travel times is essential to clearing up closures and traffic jams during the winter months.

“Congestion is the one thing that is pretty predictable," Bowes said. "If you look at the historic traffic patterns, traffic tends to build and abate at pretty much the same time from one weekend to that same weekend in previous years.”

Choosing to stay off the interstate during peak travel times, if possible, allows for more free flowing essential traffic (like trucks) to use the highway. Bowes also points to innovative products like an Auto Sock, or any simple to install tire traction product, that will go a long way in keeping the freeway flowing when conditions get tough.

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“I think a lot of people are very intimidating by putting chains on their car and so this Auto Sock device is something that’s much easier for the average person to put on their car. So we are trying to let people know that this is an option.”

Eagle's Mayor Kostick said simple changes like metered ramps, changed peak travel, and preparing drivers for winter conditions will help, though there will be no easy solution created by one single entity but rather a concerted multi-community effort across the region

“We’ve been involved with helping CDOT as much as we can with general planning, and hopefully they can make the physical improvements that need to be made,” said Kostick.

“There’s no silver bullet type thing. It’s the silver buckshot, you have to do it all up and down.” 

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