BEAVER CREEK – In December, one of the most decorated ski racers in American history sat in a conference room at a posh slope-side hotel. He smiled slightly, and then threw some serious shade at Colorado’s ski industry, specifically its reliance on the woefully outdated stretch of east-west interstate known as Interstate 70.
Ted Ligety, a seven-time Olympic and world champion gold medalist who grew up in Park City, Utah, had just been asked at a World Cup press conference to assess the chances of both Denver and Salt Lake City as the two cities vied for the right to bid on the 2030 Winter Olympics.
“Salt Lake is the no-brainer choice, really," Ligety grinned. “... Denver offers a big challenge, having Vail Pass and all that stuff. It’s hard to get up here on a snow day, where I’ve never in my life had Parleys Summit be closed to get to Park City.”
Parleys is the high point on Interstate 80 along the ridiculously easy 30-minute drive from Salt Lake City International Airport to Park City, Utah's biggest ski area.
To be clear, Ligety loves Beaver Creek. He’s won on its famed Birds of Prey World Cup course six times, including a world championship in 2015. But he knows all too well that it can be a sheer nightmare to get there from Denver International Airport in the winter. The 110-mile drive can turn into two, three or four-plus hours of agony -- assuming I-70 isn't shut down, as it has been at times this winter.
The tales of woe are legion on I-70: The Denver day skiers who spent a day on the slopes and then all night driving home. The Vail mayor who flew from France to Denver in only slightly more time than it took to drive from DIA to Vail. The Montana State University admissions official who said so many Colorado kids are flocking to Bozeman because it’s much closer to actual skiing than the University of Colorado at Boulder, aka “Ski U”.
Ligety proved prescient back in December, because a little later that month the U.S. Olympic Committee cited the “proximity” of Utah’s ski venues to Salt Lake City in choosing the 2002 host over Denver for that possible 2030 bid.
Denver was awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics, only to see Colorado voters reject the games. Former Gov. Dick Lamm, who as a state legislator helped block the ’76 Olympics, is now part of the Let Denver Vote campaign placing a measure on either the June or November municipal ballot to give city voters the final say on whether public money should ever be spent on a future Denver Olympic bid.
Given Colorado's I-70 problem, one wonders why they’re even bothering.
The campaign's goal, said Let Denver Vote spokesman Owen Perkins, is "ensuring that any future Games don't spend taxpayer dollars without prior voter approval. You might be right that there's an aversion to Denver for a variety of reasons, but Denver always seems to be on the table when considering U.S. host cities for Winter Games.”
Leaving the Olympics aside, what about the future of the state’s booming $62-billion-a-year outdoor recreation industry – about $5 billion of which comes from skiing? Or the 80,000 or so people who moved to the state last year, presumably thinking they’d be just a hop, skip and jump away from a pristine high-country meadow?
Colorado may have wrestled away the Outdoor Retailer Show from Salt Lake City because of its more progressive public-lands policies, but what good are those lands if you can’t get to them on the car-choked four-lane interstate out of Denver?
In 2018, about 13.4 million vehicles crossed the Continental Divide on I-70.
A 2007 report for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce estimated that I-70 congestion had a negative economic impact on Colorado of $839 million per year in 2005 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to about $1.1 billion today, not including the added effect of worsening congestion over that time.
Enough funding? 'No'
So what to do about I-70? The time to answer that question may have been in the early 1990s – about the same time Utah was bidding on its first Olympics and Colorado voters were approving the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights or TABOR, which curtails state infrastructure spending while keeping governments fiscally restrained.
I-70 across Colorado's mountains was finished until 1992, when the last section through Glenwood Canyon was completed, but back then the route already was considered obsolete given its traffic loads.
Colorado’s population has increased 53 percent since 1990, but the lane miles on the state’s highway system have only increased by 2 percent due to budget constraints, Colorado Department of Transportation officials said. About 70 percent of CDOT’s annual $1.4 billion transportation budget goes to maintenance, and Colorado’s 22-cent gas tax – the 12th lowest in the nation – has not been increased since 1991.
Utah, with 2.4 million fewer residents, has an only slightly lower state transportation budget and collects nearly 30 cents a gallon in gas taxes while also dipping into state sales taxes revenues to fund transportation.
To the frustration of many advocates for improving Colorado's highways, voters in November voted down a sales tax increase (Proposition 110) that would have funded a $6 billion bond issue for CDOT’s estimated $9 billion budget shortfall over the next decade, along with a tax hike. Voters also rejected a more conservative measure (Proposition 109) that would have authorized a $3.5 billion bond sale for transportation.
“[109 and 110] were rejected by Colorado voters. Meanwhile, people are frustrated by a transportation system built for our population during the 1970s and 1980s,” said Melanie Mills, Colorado Ski Country USA's president and chief executive.
“We need [state] general fund dollars at a sufficient level dedicated to transportation so that we're doing more than just keeping up with operations and maintenance, and we need some new money so that we can add some capacity to our system," Mills said.
In 2011, after years of debate and study by a variety of stakeholders of what to do about I-70 congestion, federal highway officials signed off on a host of "preferred alternative" improvements including widening the freeway and installing "advanced guideway" high-speed trains. A "maximum program of improvements" also called for drilling a third tunnel bore at the Continental Divide.
An environmental impact statement said the preferred-alternative improvements -- not including the new tunnel -- would cost an estimated $16.1 billion to $20.2 billion.
"Is there enough funding to implement the Preferred Alternative?" the report asked. Its answer: "No."
Mills, whose trade and lobbying group represents the majority of the state’s ski areas, points out that the 2011 agreement spelled out that a funding source should be secured by 2020, and that hasn’t happened.
So Mills thinks it’s time to explore other options.
“Whether that's the reversible-lane concept, whether that's a bus lane that could go in either direction that would have some operational flexibility to it,” ideas need to be pursued, Mills said. “And we also think it's time to take a careful, meaningful, detailed look at what kind of capacity increases we might realize on that corridor during peak periods, and I'm talking mainly about weekends as well as Friday evenings, by restricting trucks on the corridor during certain time windows.”
Truck restrictions were an idea floated by former Gov. John Hickenlooper and backed by the ski industry as far back as 2010, but the idea got considerable pushback from the trucking industry.
“Less than 2 percent of the travel during those peak periods is trucks,” said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association trucking lobby. “[Drivers] deliberately try to avoid those periods, ... but in many cases we can't.
"The reality is … if you increase the base population of places like Eagle or Summit County by anywhere between three to six times in winter, that's that much more food, that's that much more fuel and all the other accessories that goes with it," he added. "Those businesses begin to run out of supplies.”
Shaving off minutes
CDOT, meanwhile, is working around the edges, doing what it can to ease drive times along the corridor. One such project is the 13-mile "Mountain Express Lane," running eastbound on the I-70 shoulder between Empire and the Twin Tunnels near Idaho Springs on weekends and holidays.
CDOT has also added "Bustang" transit service, widened the Twin Tunnels in 2015, installed automated message signs warning of crashes or closures, improved lighting in trouble spots, and placed metering at certain on-ramps and the Eisenhower Tunnel. And it says it has vastly improved response times and towing when wrecks inevitably do occur.
“So, when you put those things together, what we have seen in the corridor, in general, is a 10-minute improvement in your travel times,” CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford said. “Now that doesn't sound like a lot, but [at the same time] ... there has been a vehicle-miles-traveled increase in that same corridor of 50 million vehicle miles in the same time period, from 2014 to 2017, from C-470 to Vail.”
Even as the traffic continues to surge, CDOT hopes to bring travel times down even more by supporting a bill that’s been kicking around the legislature for years but finally looks likely to pass this session.
House Bill 1207, the "Winter Conditions and Traction Control Requirements" measure, is sponsored in the House by Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, and in the Senate by Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail and Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale.
The measure passed out of the House by a 46-18 vote on March 11. At press time, it was headed to the Senate for deliberation.
The bill would require that, even without CDOT invoking the chain law, all passenger vehicles traveling on I-70 between mileposts 133 (Dotsero) and 259 (Morrison) from Sept. 1 to May 31 must be equipped with tires that have at least 3/16ths of an inch of tread (up from the current two-sixteenths) or tires chains or alternative traction devices such as AutoSocks.
Violators would face a class B traffic infraction, which carries a $100 fine and a $32 surcharge. If a motorist causes a road closure, that would mean a $500 fine and $156 surcharge.
Commercial truckers would face a $500 fine if they’re caught without chains on the same stretch of I-70 between Labor Day and Memorial Day, and $1,000 if they’re driving without chains and cause a closure. The law would apply to both privately owned and rental vehicles.
“[The law] acknowledges that we have an awful lot of folks from out of state. We have students in state who may not be familiar with the dangers and the difficulties," said Rankin, who’s been trying to get the bill passed for years in the House and may finally get his wish in the Senate. “So, we're trying to let them know that they have to be prepared if they go to the mountains in the wintertime.”
Roberts acknowledged that political infighting always seemed to kill the bill in previous sessions.
“This is a bill that should have passed many, many years ago, well before I was in the legislature,” Roberts said. “So, while I'm happy to be carrying it, it's too bad that it's only happening in 2019. As I-70 drivers, we all know why this is important. When the road up to Vail Pass or up to the Eisenhower Tunnel is snowy enough, it turns into chaos up there and just totally shuts down the highway.”
Big picture, CDOT’s Ford says there’s an expensive wish list for I-70 that includes a westbound express lane from Idaho Springs nearly to the Eisenhower Tunnel; a $500 million project to replace the aging bridge at the bottom of Floyd Hill where Kermit’s used to be, including tunneling under and straightening the interstate where it’s considered too curvy for such steep descents and ascents; fixing the tangled Silverthorne interchange; and adding a climbing lane for trucks on Vail Pass.
And that's not to mention mass-transit solutions such as expanding Bustang and that elusive advanced guideway.
But all of that will take some sort of long-term funding fix, which Rankin -- a member of the legislature's Joint Budget Committee -- remains problematic.
'Not hearing any direction'
Meanwhile, there is some highway money in the pipeline, he noted.
Senate Bill 18-1, which was passed last year in case the two transportation ballot propositions failed, allows for bonding and payment out of the general fund. Another measure provides for the sale of bonds backed by state buildings.
Rankin said that as of now, there’s $200 million for transportation in the budget deal that’s being negotiated, with Republicans seeking at least another $160 million.
“Right now, long-term future transportation funding is certainly in question. We need a long-term plan for transportation, and we do not have one,” Rankin said, adding he was hoping to see more emphasis on fixing the state’s roads this legislative session.
“This year, our new governor's priority is on full-day kindergarten, which I support, but I just don't see the priority on transportation or our long-term plan that I think we need.”
Rankin said polling showed a sales tax was more palatable to voters as a way to fund transportation than a gas-tax increase in 2018, so the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and other proponents pursued Proposition 110. But despite the polling, voters defeated the measure by a 19-percentage-point margin.
Prop 109, the so-called "Fix Our Damn Roads" bonds-but-no-taxes measure backed by the Independence Institute, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and Colorado Concern -- went down by an even bigger 21-point margin.
“At this point, I'm not hearing any direction on where we go next, but I think we need one,” Rankin said. “My personal feeling is a gas tax is the right answer, but it doesn't poll well.”
Sandra Hagen Solin is a transportation lobbyist working for the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance -- the public policy arm of the Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley chambers of commerce, along with the two economic development agencies in Weld and Larimer counties. They’re focused on finding funds to expand Interstate 25 beyond four lanes between Denver and Fort Collins, but Solin grew up in Vail, knows I-70 well and works with the Vail Valley Partnership. She has been working for years on finding long-term funding for transportation.
Solin said the House is currently looking at pursuing a ballot question in either 2019 or 2020 akin to 2005’s Referendum C that would allow for the retention of surplus revenues for education and transportation funding. She says that would be a cherry on top of what needs to be a robust ongoing commitment to transportation in the state budget given recent revenue increases, and her group is also focused on finding new revenue streams that would have to go to the voters.
“We see gas tax with an index as the most potentially viable option with the voters because of its direct connection to the road and people's appreciation for it being a user fee,” Solin said. “We're not at a place where we're saying that's what we're doing, but it is among the scenarios, and then other creative ways to look at how things can be addressed legislatively as well.”
Solin recalls when she was young, driving back up to Vail from Denver with her family and seeing ski traffic headed down on a Sunday night. She thought something had happened and people were fleeing the mountains. Now, as a Front Range resident who travels up to the mountains frequently, she has a fuller understanding of a problem that’s grown steadily worse over the years.
“Because Vail is my hometown, I have an appreciation for the linkage and the connection to our mountain communities and to our ability to keep them viable,” Solin said. “Because I grew up there, I feel like I have this obligation in some ways to help solve the problem of these major interstate corridors that are stuck. There has been no solution, and it's just getting worse.”