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Colorado I-70 highway plan approved by feds, project completion still years away

The seemingly endless studying of what ails the Interstate 70 corridor between Denver and Colorado’s mountain resort communities has started feeling a bit like the snarled driving nightmare common on mid-winter Sunday afternoons. The process inches forward at a glacial rate as the traffic just keeps building.

But state and federal regulators seem buoyed by achieving at least one milestone on Thursday, as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) signed a Record of Decision (ROD) for the Interstate 70 Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS).

Bureaucratically speaking, that means that after 20 years of studies the feds have finally signed off on the Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) planning framework for improving the often-gridlocked corridor between its intersection with C-470 in the Denver metro area and the mountain town of Glenwood Springs in Garfield County – a distance of about 160 miles.

“The dedication of many stakeholders working together has brought us to this point of having a Tier 1 Record of Decision,” FHWA’s Colorado Division Administrator John Cater said in praising the hard-fought deal. “We all need to continue working together in this same spirit as we implement future transportation improvements in the mountain corridor.”

The first draft of the PEIS that the feds just signed off on was issued in 2004, but the process was stalled when various stakeholders balked over the costs associated with major upgrades along the corridor, and the fact that – during the Republican Owens administration – the plan didn’t include any kind of rail alternative, and the overall concept of trying to pave the problem away by six-laning I-70 through small mountain towns and sensitive alpine environments.

That led to a reboot of the process in 2007, the formation of the I-70 Collaborative Effort (CE) – made up of 27 stakeholder groups along the corridor – and ultimately a preferred alternative that included at least the possibility of some sort of advanced guideway rail system.

“Implementing the CE process was crucial and a great example of what can be accomplished when everyone comes together to improve our transportation system,” CDOT Executive Director Don Hunt said in a release.

The nuts and bolts highway improvements are entirely contingent on very limited state and federal highway funding and still may be years, if not decades, away from becoming reality. But here they are, according to a CDOT release:

• Six lanes from Floyd Hill through the Twin Tunnels, including a bike trail and frontage roads from Idaho Springs east to Hidden Valley and Hidden Valley to U.S. 6

• Empire Junction (U.S. 40/I-70) improvements

• Eastbound auxiliary lane from the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnel (EJMT) to Herman Gulch

• Westbound auxiliary lane from Bakerville to the EJMT

• CDOT will begin studying an Advanced Guideway System (AGS) in the corridor this summer.

CDOT already funded a high-speed rail study to the tune of $1.5 million that concluded it will cost more than $21 billion for such a system along both the I-70 corridor and Interstate 25 on the Front Range. The study envisioned fares of up to $40 one way between Denver and Vail. That’s better than what van services currently charge for a similar trip, but still a fairly steep price.

It’s a lot cheaper to build high-speed rail along the relatively flat Front Range corridor where the vast majority of the state’s population lives, costing about $6 billion. Denver International Airport over the Eisenhower Tunnel to Summit County, where the majority of Coloradans and visitors ski every weekend, would cost about $9 billion. Extending it on over Vail Pass to the Eagle Country Regional Airport in Eagle County would likely cost another $7 billion.

The good news, if you’re a passenger rail fan, is the Obama administration is pushing very hard for high speed trains. The bad news is that push isn’t happening in Colorado, which doesn’t have the population density needed to justify such huge federal expenditures.

Some observers have argued the only way Colorado may see high-speed rail into the mountains is a 2022 Winter Olympic bid.

Meanwhile, the various user groups – from truckers to skiers — will no doubt continue to battle over what will fix the growing gridlock along the state’s key east-west corridor between the population centers of the Front Range and the mountain resort playgrounds where all those people love to recreate.

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