January 25, 2006
Clogged Rockies Highway Divides Coloradans
By KIRK JOHNSON
SILVERTHORNE, Colo., Jan. 22 - When Interstate 70 was built through here in the 1960's and 70's, the Colorado Rockies were largely rural and remote, and the old roads that the highway replaced were a widely recognized danger.
Over the years, as the population grew, delays and frustrations on the highway began to mount. Traffic jams at nosebleed altitude became common. In 8,800-foot-high Silverthorne, which was little more than a gas station pit stop a generation ago, with a grocery that got fresh produce only on Thursdays, alpine meadows gave way to factory outlet stores.
Now state officials are considering a major and contentious widening project for Interstate 70 that is dividing people over the question of who the highway is for and how it transformed these mountains.
The project is a variation of a drama that is playing out across much of the West as once-rural outposts are transformed into brimming settlements with newfound political and economic clout in transportation decisions.
As the Federal Highway Act of 1956 established the Interstate System and helped open vast expanses of the West, highways like Interstate 70 changed just about everything by putting on the map distant places that had been mostly untouched.
Now, the very places that were changed, like Silverthorne - 65 miles west of Denver - are wading in as aggressive and muscular participants in discussions about what comes next.
In Nevada, the expansion U.S. 95 connecting Las Vegas and its sprawling western suburbs has resumed after environmentalists settled a lawsuit last year over the effect of increased vehicle emissions on nearby residents.
The proposed Legacy Highway in Utah, extending south of Salt Lake City, was blocked for years before receiving final approval this month.
Elsewhere in Colorado, a plan for a toll road across the once-empty plains east of Denver was put on hold last year after opposition from residents.
Transportation experts, politicians and residents agree that the stakes and implications of these fights are enormous, touching on tenets of the West that are scriptural: unbridled growth, local identity, civic autonomy and an uneasy dependence on government.
Here in Colorado, where Interstate 70 is crucial to the tourism economy and the state's image as the mountain playground of the West, businesses, residents and interest groups do not remotely agree on what to do.
"The question is, How much do we really want to improve I-70 - and do we want to improve it so much that it changes the character of our communities?" said Gary Severson, the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. "That's the tightrope."
The idea that transportation systems can reshape the regions through which they pass is well established. As far back as the Erie Canal and the transcontinental railroad, geographers and historians say that getting from Point A to Point B has always been at least partly about property values, boosterism and the restless American impulse to move on and create anew.
But that pattern is being given a decidedly new twist here on a road that was hailed and agonized over as one of the most daunting stretches of the Interstate System.
Places like Silverthorne - incorporated in 1967, when it was populated mainly by highway construction workers - have become destinations for shopping or homebuilding and tend to favor an expansion of the highway that would deliver more of the bounty that Interstate 70 has already bestowed. Towns closer to Denver, like Idaho Springs, which have not seen the influx of vacation homes or tourists and which also have many more commuters to Denver, say mass transit must be on the table.
Some politicians and residents say that doing nothing may be the wisest course. Colorado's population in and out of the mountains is expected to increase by 50 percent in the next 20 years, pushing people toward mass transit as traffic congestion worsens.
Not everything that has happened here is a result of transportation, of course. The explosion of population and the economy since the completion of Interstate 70's last leg in 1979 - the second tube of the Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnel at 11,000 feet across the Continental Divide - also coincided with a demographic transformation as members of the post-World War II generation reached their peak earning years, stock and real estate markets boomed and changes in tax law made buying vacation real estate more attractive.
Resorts that opened or grew during the highway's early years - like Vail, in 1962, Keystone in 1970 and Beaver Creek in 1980 - have moved toward year-round operations and real-estate development that bring more visitors and residents.
The results have all fed back into the equation of traffic, which is increasingly bumper-to-bumper on weekends in winter and summer. Another record was set last year for the number of cars trying to squeeze through the four lanes of the Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnel in one month - just over 37,000 a day, last July.
Issues of class and clout have further clouded the picture.
Summit County, where Silverthorne is located, was one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation in the 1990's, with the population up 83 percent. Equally important, many residents and politicians say, is that the nine counties along the Interstate 70 corridor - led by Summit and Eagle, where the big resorts and the biggest waves of homebuilding are concentrated - are becoming more and more important to the state's economy.
In 2000, a private study commissioned by the state found that the corridor produced about $2 billion in recreation revenue, out of $9.3 billion statewide, and generated $136 million in state and local tax revenues.
"Do we accommodate growth, or do we stifle it? That is the question," said Lou DelPiccolo, Silverthorne's mayor, who favors a highway widening plan.
Thirty miles east, in Clear Creek County, where the growth has been slower and the big payoff from the highway never quite materialized, political leaders like the Idaho Springs mayor, Dennis Lunbery, are asking the opposite question: Could they survive the widening of the highway?
Idaho Springs, confined in a narrow canyon - the back door of City Hall is less than 100 feet from the Interstate's westbound guardrail - would be destroyed, Mr. Lunbery said, by the miasma of asphalt, noise and dust that a bigger highway, and the years of construction, would bring.
Mr. Lunbery said he thought that the state, in its environmental assessment of the corridor, had "stacked the deck" toward a highway-widening option by excluding any plan that costs more than $4 billion. Most mass transit proposals would add at least another $2 billion to $4 billion.
Coincidentally or not, widening is what the destination communities farther west mostly want. Many people farther west also worry that a mass transit rail line, however good it may be for closer-in communities like Idaho Springs, could turn resort communities into bedroom communities, full of commuters catching the train to their offices in Denver.
The executive director of the State Department of Transportation, Thomas E. Norton, who is expected to make a decision on the corridor later this year, said he was open to all options.
"I don't think there is a bias in my perspective," Mr. Norton said. "There is a bias toward best use of the public dollar, and until you can get really high transit kinds of usage, the economics are not there. Rail that can move 10,000 people an hour looks great, but if only 12 days of the year it would be used by that many people, it's not an efficient use of dollars."
Many people, including Mr. Lunbery, who expects the state's study to be challenged in court almost no matter what happens, think that nothing will happen for years on the corridor - partly because of the difficulty in finding the money - and that worsening traffic is, for now, the only certainty.
Gary Lindstrom thinks that is a good thing. He is a legislator in the Colorado House whose district includes much of the corridor. He is also a Democratic candidate for governor this year and favors the mass transit idea, but he agrees with Mr. Norton that for now it does not appear feasible. Time will change that equation, Mr. Lindstrom said.
"The worst thing we can do is widen the highway," he said. "We need to keep the congestion so people will be interested in the transit."
No matter what unfolds, Linda Wellington and her husband, Bill, who have lived all their lives here, will probably not see it. Ms. Wellington has watched it all - the good and the bad - and often talked it over with her father, a career highway worker, before he died, who regularly plowed the highest passes of the old road before Interstate 70 was built.
"At one time I was bitter. I'd say, 'Dad, don't you hate all the people and the traffic?' and he'd say, 'We need to move forward,' " said Ms. Wellington, who is in her 50's. "So that's where I am now. You can't stop it. It's here, we've built it, and you can't close the door."
The Wellingtons are planning to move. Mr. Wellington, who is 56, said he had been looking at a place in northeastern Colorado, out on the plains toward Kansas, where it is not as crowded as the mountains have become and where their son now lives. He will hate to leave, he said, but things have changed too much to stay.