Out to Lunch With the Colorado Department of Transportation
By Amanda Molitor
Driving change for Colorado’s Rocky Mountain roads
Anyone who has driven from Denver into the mountains knows that taking the I-70 Mountain Corridor is an uphill battle during ski season. This scenic highway winds between beautiful rocky landscapes, conifer forests, and even offers the chance to spot elk, deer, or the occasional mountain goat along the roadside terrain. But with the relaxing views often comes traffic jams that may make getting to some of the state’s most amazing destinations a bit tricky.

The roadways that connect the mountain communities to Colorado’s metropolitan areas, most notably 1-70, act as veins that bring the tourists, commercial vehicles carrying goods, and the commuting workforce to and from the Rocky Mountains. As arguably the most important route in between the mountains and the Front Range, any traffic slowdowns due to construction or closures results in a major impact for the resort towns that rely on the business, goods, and services traveling towards them on these roads.

In an effort to improve safety and motorists’ experience while driving through the mountains, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is currently planning and executing several enhancement projects aimed at making Interstate I-70, a smoother ride for everyone.

Making Room for Mountain Traffic
From Denver, a hub for travel and often the first stop for tourists making their way toward their ski resort of choice, I-70 westbound is typically where they’ll experience their first run in with the dreaded weekend and holiday ski traffic. With so many people flocking to the resorts on their days off, the traffic can quickly double the drive time to your destination. To help ease the congestion, CDOT has been working hard to resurface and widened select portions of I-70 westbound to accommodate an extra lane on the shoulder of the road. This new lane will be used as a managed and tolled express lane during peak travel periods to give motorists more road to work with on their commutes to the mountains.

Similar to the eastbound I-70 Mountain Express Lane, the new 12-mile-long westbound express lane will use transponders and license plate tolling to charge drivers for use of the road. This project, which began during the summer of 2019, has just entered its testing phase. During this phase, drivers will be allowed to try out the new express lane free of charge. Weekend skiers should enjoy this complimentary bonus lane while they can – tolls will be implemented in early 2022. This is one of the most positive and impactful changes that drivers heading into the Rocky Mountains this winter will see.

Location: Westbound I-70 between the Veterans Memorial Tunnels (Mile Point 242) and Empire Junction (Mile Point 230)

Traffic Impacts: Now open during peak periods including weekends and holidays, with tolls starting in early 2022

Enhancements: Widening the shoulder to be used as peak period express lane

Cost: $60-70 million

Estimated Completion Date: 2021

Finding a Solution for Floyd Hill
Floyd Hill also seems to be a hot spot for ski traffic. Cars traveling west through Idaho Springs often experience backups around the westbound bridge over Clear Creek. According to CDOT, replacing the bridge with a safer and more efficient alternative is a major priority which will address current infrastructure deficiencies. In addition, this improvement will increase reliability, travel time, safety, and mobility along the route.

There are currently three alternatives being evaluated to replace the bridge and improve that stretch of I-70: a westbound tunnel, a canyon viaduct, and a “no action” alternative that would replace the bridge. The tunnel and canyon viaduct alternatives will both increase the lanes on westbound I-70 in this area from two lanes to three lanes. The “no action” alternative would replace the bridge but would not add a third westbound lane. Each option has its own benefits and drawbacks but the canyon viaduct, a bridge-like structure that would elevate the roadways across Clear Creek, seems to be the front runner of the three.

“The preferred alternative is the canyon viaduct,” stated Presley Fowler, CDOT Spokesperson. “This would realign a portion of both eastbound and westbound I-70 above Clear Creek to alleviate the tight curves and steep grades on that portion of road that contribute to the buildup of traffic.”

There is still much to be decided on which direction this project will go. CDOT has just recently completed the environmental assessment for this undertaking, which evaluated each of the alternatives’ impacts on both the natural and built environments. Using this assessment, CDOT will closely consider the options at hand as well as the input received during the public review period before issuing a decision document that will give the project the greenlight.

“You drive that corridor not only to get somewhere, but also because it’s a gorgeous route, so we don’t want to negatively impact the natural beauty and the resources of the road – or at least our goal is to mitigate that as much as possible,” said Presley.

While this future construction will greatly reduce the bottlenecking of traffic in the area, drivers shouldn’t expect to see improvements this season as the timeline for construction has not yet been released.

Location: Westbound I-70 from east of the Floyd Hill/Beaver Brook Exit 248 through the Veterans Memorial Tunnels to Colorado Blvd./Idaho Springs Exit 241

Traffic Impacts: Construction timeline to be determined

Enhancements: Replacing the Floyd Hill Bridge with new infrastructure

Cost: $600-700 million

Estimated Completion Date: TBD

Time-Saving Enhancements to Vail Pass map
Time-Saving Enhancements to Vail Pass
Another point of concern for drivers, whether venturing to or from popular winter destinations in the Rockies, is Vail Pass. This stretch of road between Eagle County and Summit County can make or break your day on the road. Situated at 10,662 feet above sea level, Vail Pass is known as one of the most challenging sections of road to navigate in Colorado thanks to its steep grade, high elevation, and frequently hazardous driving conditions due to inclement weather.

As such, the pass often experiences closures for the safety of motorists. The closures are time consuming to implement and remove manually, tacking on additional wait times for frustrated travelers sitting in traffic. Not only are these necessary road closures bothersome to drivers, but they have a significant effect on the local economy. The estimated economic impact for detours from Vail Pass closures is to improve the Vail Pass, CDOT is embarking on a four-year long project to improve safety and operations. This tremendous undertaking will repair and enhance a wide range of challenges associated with Vail Pass. Some of the most impressive aspects of the construction project include the addition of a third eastbound auxiliary lane, between mile point 185 and mile point 190 to better serve emergency responders and ease traffic congestion during heavy travel times; a remote controlled highway closure system that will cut closure times by automating much of the labor required to open or close the pass; modifications to the curves and shoulders on the westbound lanes to increase safety; and much more.

$1 million for every hour I-70 is closed, according to cdot.
“The really cool thing that everyone is excited for is the multiyear project for Vail Pass that officially kicked off this summer,” noted Elise Thatcher, CDOT Spokesperson. “The highway closure system being added will reduce the need to send workers out to manually close the roadway. The highway closure system will allow the highway to be closed much faster using electronic signage systems that can be changed very quickly – ahead of when a person could actually drive to the top of the pass.”

While CDOT is moving full speed ahead on this highly anticipated enhancement to one of the state’s most important travel routes, drivers heading to the mountains this winter won’t reap the benefits just yet. In order to not cause any additional delays during the ski season, major construction on Vail Pass will not begin until the spring of 2022 and is estimated to be completed in 2025.

Location: East Vail Exit at Mile Point 180 to the Vail Pass Rest Area at Mile Point 190

Traffic Impacts: There will be no construction activities taking place along the I-70 corridor from late November to early April, and significant construction will begin in spring of 2022

Enhancements: Eastbound auxiliary lane, westbound curve modifications, bridge replacement, variable speed limit signs, highway closure system, additional wildlife underpasses and fencing

Cost: $164.2 million

Estimated Completion Date: 2025

Highlighting Safety on the Highway
These enhancements come at a time where safety is even more important. CDOT has noticed that over the course of the pandemic, many drivers have neglected to follow legal speed limits and other safety advisories.

“One of the main trends that we did see during the pandemic that unfortunately is continuing is people speeding,” observed Thatcher. “It’s possible that with not as many people on the roadways a lot of drivers felt like they could drive well over the speed limit. it’s a real hazard that is creating a safety issue that we’re trying to find some solutions for.”

CDOT is hopeful that implementing these changes throughout the state will make the roads safer but much of the responsibility still rests on the shoulders of motorists. Respecting speed limits, ensuring that they have the correct traction devices in their vehicles, and checking road conditions ahead of time are all part of being a good driver in the mountains.

According to the Passenger Vehicle Traction Law and Passenger Vehicle Chain Law, anyone driving in the mountains must have an all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicle, snow tires, or keep tire chains or alternative traction devices with them. These regulations are aimed at ensuring all travelers are adequately prepared and can be put into effect in Colorado at any time when weather conditions are severe, primarily on roadways with significant ascending and descending grades.

Did You Know: All motorists are required to either have an all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicle, or (for two-wheel drive vehicles) snow tires or all-weather tires with a mud/snow designation or must carry chain devices or alternative traction devices by law.

In addition to monitoring your speed and carrying traction devices, CDOT encourages motorists to take a look at highway conditions before hitting the road. COtrip is CDOTs official real-time traffic and traveler information update center. Available both online and via a mobile app, COtrip provides statewide travel information for Colorado’s interstates, U.S. routes, and state highways – helping drivers stay ahead of the game and out of harm’s way.

Thanks to the dedication of CDOT, getting to your favorite ski resorts and mountain towns is about to get a whole lot easier. Soon, drivers will be able to have a safer and more enjoyable trip to some of the most beautiful destinations in the state. So, buckle up, grab some road treats and hit the highway this winter!

Learn more about current and upcoming roadway improvements by visiting codot.gov.

Photos courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation
six people taking a picture together putting their shovels in soil
Travel tip:
download cotriP PLANNER APP, cdots official mobile app, to check road conditions ahead of travel.