Saturday, August 17, 2019

The I70 corridor mess:trying to fix it again

A version of this was published in the Sky Hi News  9 18 2019.

Grand County issues:

A recent Summit  Daily story published in the Sky-Hi News August 14, 2019,   reported on a Colorado Department of Transportation listening tour in Summit County to help them plan for the next ten years in the I 70 corridor. They are considering all modes of transportation, not just highways. CDOT plans to visit all 64 counties and Grand County needs to get its plans and input in shape. August 17 story in the Sky Hi News may give us hope for a commuter bus, but it is in the distance, 2021, and might even bypass Winter Park, Fraser, and Granby. The good news is that any improvements to I 70 benefit Grand County whose economic wellbeing depends heavily on second home and skier traffic from the Front Range and Denver International Airport (DIA).  The bad news for Grand County is that the focus on I 70 could leave US 40 and Grand County as an appendix to the main transportation corridor unless it formulates plans to connect with I 70 improvements and participates in shaping them. Northwest Regional Council of Government and county transportation plans found in an internet search are dated and do not address connections with I 70 now or in the future.

The challenge for Grand County is how to make it easier to tap onto the I-70 improvements and to help shape those projects.  In the meantime, I 70  improvements are in the works. Just beginning are constructing the westbound toll express lane from Twin Tunnels to Empire, including a remake of the Empire bridge enabling better merge of our US 40 with I 70.  The survey and utility stakes are already pounded in the ground.  If we thought the pain of construction of eastbound toll lanes was bad, we are now going to experience it all over again until the spring of 2021. The end result may be worth our suffering, but in the meantime, ouch.

There is a history here that is etched in the memories of old-timers when Fraser was leaving planet earth in the '70s and before I-70. US 40 from Denver with two lanes was an adventure in mountain driving.  I-70 was routed through Summit and Eagle counties although Grand County was considered.  For many years, Grand County remained mostly an island in the sky with difficult access through high passes.US 40 over Berthoud Pass was a flatlander's nightmare.   In the Fraser Valley, a boomlet of development with promises of 1976  Winter Olympics (defeated by voters) died on the vine; tradesmen left the valley and real estate and land prices never recovered until after the Great Recession of 2008. Even still, Grand County's greatest draw has always been that it is near Denver and still relatively affordable.  In the 1980's Denver, the source of second home investment was in economic struggles with the collapse of oil prices and the takeover of banking by out of state giants.  Front Range residents were just trying to avoid foreclosure on their homes.  Building I 70, the opening of DIA, high tech industry increase, and the general economic growth of the Front Range bootstrapped Denver into the best economy in the nation by 2019 and with that came wealth to buy second homes, demand for US 40 Berthoud pass improvements, now completed,  and ski area expansions.

 In 2001 voters in the front range refused to pay for a monorail to Vail. They never understood how it benefitted them in Denver to pay for a bunch of rich skiers to have easier transportation to luxury resorts. Any improvements even to I 70 would have to be self-funded by tolls, a truism to this day.  Talk about automobile tunnels under Berthoud or the Front Range mountains directly east of Winter Park and Fraser went nowhere.  The ski train died and was resurrected, but only for weekends in ski season.  Amtrak's California Zephyr seems never to be on time, but while economical for trips to Denver,  its unreliability has never served as a commuter-friendly service. Taxi and van services kept raising rates and made DIA their destination, not Denver itself or its newly constructed Union Station hub.  Federal funds for any infrastructure got snagged in Washington gridlock in spite of bi-partisan support. Bus service is Greyhound once a day, but Summit and Eagle Counties got Bustang, a Colorado Department of Transportation commuter bus, that also stops in Idaho Springs three times a day and serves Denver's Union Station, with connections to DIA and light rail.  Grand County does not have a pubic transit connection with Bustang between Idaho Springs or Summit County.  Per a report in the August 17 Sky Hi News, a Bustang route from Denver to Steamboat is on the table, but there is no sure-fire agreement whether it is going via US 40 or Highway 9. Kremmling may benefit, Winter Park, Fraser, Hot Sulphur, and Granby could be left high and dry.
The hour and a half or two hour drive to Denver or DIA under the most favorable conditions  make that distance  seem close but still far away when winter driving conditions,  avalanche control, and tourist/skier traffic add hours to the drive., In short, alternative ways to get to the Front Range from Grand County and vice versa are either prohibitively expensive, undependable or have destinations that are inconvenient.  Even buses will have problems with traffic and weather so long as they use highways. Express lanes help, but Mother Nature will always challenge us. That is the reality of living in the high country, but at least we can deal with man-made challenges with more mass transit from bus service to rail.  Now that Grand County's southeast end has a year-round tax-supported local bus service, and the west end saw road improvements to Summit County, the focus should begin the shift to alternatives to automobiles to building better access to and from our Island in the Sky. As a senior who still drives the pass, but facing even older age, it would be nice to have some other way than by car to get to Denver to visit children and grandchildren, to shop, and to get medical services not available in the county. I plead a degree of self-interest in making this case for affordable travel alternatives.,
Duh, per a reader's comment. Here's mine:
If it does not connect to Grand County, it will not be helpful to us in Grand County. I will be great for our ski area competitors, though, and hell will freeze over before this dream is a reality for the I70 folks.. The same arguments were used when the voters turned down the Monorail to Vail proposal several years ago because front range voters could not see the benefit to them and they didn't want to pay for rich skiers to go to ski resorts. Federal infrastructure money is stuck in Congress and mostly would benefit highways and bridges. Consequently, such improvements have to be funded by tolls and users for now, as are the express lanes, and whatever scraps of money the State can find and the Feds could squeeze out.. The best bet for anything in the foreseeable future, commuter Bustang going through Winter Park, Fraser, Granby, Hot Sulphur, Kremmling on US 40 to Steamboat.

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