Retread I-70 winter driving bill gaining traction

Traffic on snow-covered Interstate 70 in Colorado.

Winter driving this year has been a little trickier, with (thank goodness) more snow this year. But that means that motorists have to be a little more in tune with what's on their vehicles to get them through winter driving conditions.

Three state lawmakers want to tighten up the rules around the equipment on people's vehicles during the rough winter months.  

There's some irony involved, too.

House Bill 1207 was introduced this week in the Colorado General Assembly. Its House sponsor is Democratic Rep. Dylan Roberts of Eagle. In the Senate, the measure is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail and Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale.

That last sponsor is what makes for some of the bill's irony.

House Bill 1207 would require motorists who drive along Interstate 70 between Dotsero (mile marker 133, in Eagle County, about halfway between Glenwood Springs and Vail) and Morrison to have equipment on their vehicles that will make driving in icy or snow-packed conditions safer.

That equipment would have to include, under the bill:

  • Chains or alternate traction devices;
  • Or four-wheel or all-wheel drive with tires that have at least 3/16 of an inch in depth;
  • Or snow tires.

Under the bill, motorists whose vehicles lack the required equipment and are driving in winter driving conditions would not be allowed to proceed through the targeted area. That includes the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnel and to the ski areas in Clear Creek, Summit and Eagle counties. 

This is the second attempt by Donovan and Rankin to require motorists to toughen up their winter driving equipment. The last time was in 2016, when they sponsored a bill that would have done almost the same as what's in House Bill 1207.

The 2016 version was backed by just about everyone who is concerned about traveling along I-70 during the winter: the Colorado State Patrol, the state Department of Transportation, Vail Resorts; the I-70 Coalition; which includes commissioners from the impacted counties; the mountain hotels, local police and other first responders, as well as the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

The measure also was backed by editorials of support from virtually every mountain newspaper and a positive coverage from a fair number of media outlets along the Front Range. The bill won strong bipartisan support from the Democratic-controlled House Transportation Committee and the House sent it on its way to the Senate on a 48-16 vote, also strongly bipartisan.

But it had an opponent in the Senate who overruled them all: The chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, then-Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs. Not one person testified against the bill, but one witness's testimony probably didn't help, at least where Baumgardner was concerned.

The last witness testimony came in the form of a letter from former state Sen. Al White of Winter Park. White's wife, Jean, was appointed in January 2011 to replace her husband in the state Senate from Senate District 8 when he took at job running the state's tourism office in the Hickenlooper administration.

The following year, Baumgardner challenged Jean White in the 2012 primary, a race marred with acrimony between the two candidates: White accused Baumgardner of spreading lies about her and refused to endorse him for the general election. 

The letter from Al White said he supported the 2016 bill because it would reduce road closures more effectively than the current traction law, which only goes into effect when the state patrol has declared that winter driving conditions exist.

"Everytime Berthoud Pass closes, it costs me thousands of dollars," White wrote. He and his wife operated several full service ski shops, a bike shop, and a mountain lodge in Winter Park for more than two decades.

Baumgardner complimented the supporters and the state patrol. But "we really don't need this law," he said, citing concerns raised by his constituents, and added that CDOT has the availability by rule to institute a chain law whenever it wants.

Fellow Republican Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction said the bill was merely a "feel-good" measure that had no enforcement behind it, nor any money to educate motorists about the law.

"No one testified against this," protested Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora, the 2016 measure's co-sponsor. The measure just tells motorists to be prepared for winter weather conditions in the mountains, she said, and similar rules had already been imposed on the trucking industry, which also supported the bill. Donovan also pointed out the myriad of support the bill got.

It was to no avail; the bill died on a 2-3 party-line vote.

The 2019 version is likely to garner the same support, according to Roberts and Donovan. And in 2019, the senator from Senate District 8 is singing a different tune. Rankin was appointed to replace Baumgardner, who resigned in January.

Rankin told Colorado Politics he couldn't resist being a sponsor of the 2019 version, and said he believes his constituents support the measure as well. The bill's first hearing has not yet been scheduled.

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