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I-70 Train Plan Will Lead to More Congestion

Opinion Editorial
November 1, 2010

By  John M.W. Aldridge

The Colorado Department of Transportation recently announced how it plans to try to fix the capacity and congestion problems in the Interstate 70 mountain corridor. The plan has two major problems. First, it’s going to take 20 years or more to implement, and second, it will do nothing meaningful to relieve the worst area of congestion from east of Idaho Springs to west of Georgetown.

The plan proposes construction of a passenger train from Golden to the Eagle County Airport, about 118 miles. The plan envisions an electrically powered system running on an elevated track adjacent to the highway. The estimated cost is an astonishing $20 billion, or about 20 times CDOT’s annual budget to manage and maintain the entire state highway system. CDOT freely admits it does not have any money for the project.

CDOT also admits that the proposed train technology has not been developed or tested for use in a harsh mountain environment. According to CDOT, the proposed technology is based on a small (5.5 miles on a flat track) Japanese maglev system where the passenger car is elevated by magnets and rides on a cushion of air. The Japanese system is not compliant with U.S. safety and Americans with Disability Act standards, is unstable in wind gusts over 50 mph, and operates poorly in bad weather and low temperatures. These major technical problems would be extremely difficult to resolve for the system to work in a bad weather Rocky Mountain environment, according to a recent report from the Federal Transit Administration.

On top of that, there is no assurance that the train would relieve congestion. In fact, there is no guarantee that a significant number of people would ride it. It would only provide station-to-station service.

Moreover, the train will not connect to DIA except via a complex routing using RTD’s East Line Commuter Rail, changing at Union Station, then getting on the West Line light rail, and then changing again in Golden. The out-of-state visitor is not going to put up with this excruciating series of transfers and baggage handling.

To make things even worse, CDOT has made a formal agreement with corridor stakeholders and environmental activists to do nothing meaningful to resolve the congestion problems in the heaviest area of congestion, namely from the Twin Tunnels east of Idaho Springs to west of Georgetown. Currently, in the westbound direction, congestion begins at the top of Floyd Hill where three lanes are reduced to two. In the eastbound direction, congestion begins at the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels and then increases hugely with merging traffic from US-40 at Empire Junction.

Under the terms of the agreement, CDOT can add lanes from Floyd Hill to the Twin Tunnels and can construct a third tunnel; but west of the tunnels there will be a lane drop (reduction of three to two lanes) where traffic will congest in the same manner as it does now at the top of Floyd Hill. Similarly, in the eastbound direction, the agreement prohibits any widening of the highway west of Georgetown and in particular, CDOT can do nothing to resolve the extremely heavy congestion caused by the merge at Empire Junction.

The agreement allows a progress review every two years, and if the train is not in place by 2025, then consideration can be given to improving this section of the highway. In the meantime, the agreement only permits CDOT to make interchange improvements that correspond to potential train stations and to add some auxiliary lanes here and there. But the agreement forbids CDOT from doing anything between now and 2025 to fix the critical section from Idaho Springs to Georgetown.

Independent of the agreement, though, CDOT can implement “early action projects” at any time. These could include adding a “zipper lane,” which could be used to carry high-occupancy vehicles in whichever direction is the most congested.

A zipper lane for shuttle buses, and for cars with several passengers, could relieve congestion right away. And unlike the maglev train, it would be convenient and would still work during rough winter weather.

John Aldridge is a Colorado licensed professional engineer, a professional traffic operations engineer, and research associate in transportation policy at the Independence Institute in Golden. This article originally appeared in the Denver Post, November 1, 2010.