touted for I-70
May 5, 2005
GRANBY - The mountain stretch of I-70 needs a high-tech, Euro-style makeover, says Eagle County resident Jim Lamont, a former town of Vail planner who now works on freeway issues as executive director of the Vail Village Homeowners Association.
In a symbolic public-private partnership, Lamont recently visited Europe on a fact-finding mission with Vail public works director Greg Hall, in part to examine transportation technology and design. The trip was eye-opening, he said.
"It wasn't by happenstance that Greg and I went to Europe now," Lamont said. He urged other transportation officials to take a similar trip before making any final call on solutions to I-70 congestion.
"It would be beneficial so they could understand how an advanced approach can preserve. The European priority is preserving cultures and communities," Lamont said of the transportation planning and implementation efforts he saw.
His remarks came as representatives from more than 30 towns and counties within the I-70 sphere of influence converged on Granby Thursday and today to forge a regionally supported plan for I-70 improvements.
Lamont said he's working with Vail Village property owners to develop a localized alternative for the Vail Valley segment that would incorporate some of the European design elements. He recently presented some of those ideas to the Vail Town Council.
Lamont is not a big fan of the Colorado Department of Transportation and he panned the current approach to congestion solutions as out-moded.
The agency, also known as CDOT, relies on using 50- and 60-year-old designs and technology - standards that would be nearly three-quarters of a century old by the time they're built, he said.
"CDOT is trying to poor-boy and give second-rate status to the I-70 corridor," Lamont said.
For a long-term sustainable solution, government agencies and private interests must collaborate and come up with the money needed to fund a visionary transportation system for the corridor, he said.
Hiding the highway
Collaboration among various levels of government and with private interests is key, said former Vail mayor Ludwig Kurz, who also visited the Alps recently. As a long-time Vail resident, he has experienced his share of I-70 commutes.
"I live it on a daily basis, back and forth," Kurz said.
Some of the successes achieved in Europe could be attributed to leadership and funding from the federal government, Kurz said, which recognizes the national interests and economic benefits associated with maintaining an up-to-date transportation system.
Lamont said some European countries built highways in mountain areas with tunnels and landscaped cut-and-fill designs that insulate the roads from the nearby communities and vice-versa. In some cases, rocksheds and partial tunnels are covered with native vegetation and materials so as not to ruin scenic views.
Interchanges are compact, and freight movement is also considered as designers try to minimize the overall highway footprint. It all costs a lot of money, but that becomes a question of priorities, and social and political will, Kurz said.
"There are things being done from a design standpoint, if you live in a little village you hardly know the highway is going through," Kurz said.
Both Kurz and Lamont acknowledge the fundamental differences between the social, fiscal and political realities in Europe and Colorado, and neither of them claim that Europe has all the answers.
In fact, Kurz said European policy-makers are scrambling to figure out how they will deal with the anticipated 25 percent increase in heavy truck traffic in just the next 10 years.
Breached truck-traffic caps have already resulted in political squabbling and even a blockade several years ago on the Brenner Pass highway, connecting Austria and Italy.
Concerns about impacts, including direct effects on the health of Brenner corridor residents, are widespread.
But Kurz said he observed some key differences in the way Europeans have come to terms with transportation issues.
"They seem to react quicker," Kurz continued. "They have come to grips with it. We keep talking about how expensive it is to come to a fix and while we're talking, it gets more expensive."
Construction is currently under way on what will be one of the world's longest tunnels under the Swiss Alps. Kurz said there's an aesthetic and emotional dimension that Europeans have dealt with more practically. "They say, 'what can do to make them as pleasant as possible,'" Kurz continued.
"I think the Europeans have dealt with that emotional piece of it - how a highway looks, how a chairlift looks going up a summit," he said. "Yeah, it's more pristine without it, but how do we get there, up, north, south east, west?"
Short-term vs. long-term
Lamont also said there is more of a focus on traffic management in Europe, a short-term fix that could be applied to I-70 to bring some immediate relief. For starters, he explained, truck traffic is not allowed in some key recreational alpine areas on weekends.
Freight- handling is another key factor, he said, acknowledging the reliance of I-70 corridor communities on the delivery of goods via truck. With centralized loading facilities and underground docks, some of the nuisances of local truck traffic can be eliminated, he explained.
The big-picture vision for the future of the I-70 should include high-speed mass transit and could include a significant air component for the western end of the region, Lamont added, referring to the recent test flight of a giant new passenger plane that can hold up to 800 people.
He says a new air terminal on the Western Slope could be linked with a transit system, a single plane filling a passenger train to the resorts in a timed connection.
Bob Berwyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org