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I-70 West Vail Pass Auxiliary Lanes Project Breaks Ground

EAGLE COUNTY, CO — The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Colorado State Patrol (CSP), Town of Vail, and partner agencies recently gathered to break ground on the I-70 West Vail Pass Auxiliary Lanes project. Groundbreaking speakers were U.S. Department of Transportation, Vershun Tolliver FHWA Deputy Division Administrator-Colorado; Captain Jared Rapp, CSP; Greg Hall, Public Works Director for the Town of Vail; and CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew. Also in attendance were representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, and contractor partner Kiewit Infrastructure Corporation.

The I-70 West Vail Pass Auxiliary Lanes project will improve safety and operations on West Vail Pass. The project limits extend from the East Vail Exit at Mile Point 180 to the Vail Pass Rest Area at Mile Point 190 and include a range of improvements to address the unique nature of Vail Pass. This stretch of I-70 has steep grades and tight curves and the intermingling of faster-moving passenger vehicles with slower-moving trucks that often result in inconsistent travel times along the corridor.

“The last few weeks have reminded us just how much the whole state relies on the critical junctures across the I-70 mountain corridor,” Lew said. “This project will add critical resiliency to Vail Pass with the addition of an auxiliary lane that will provide a place for emergency vehicles to manage incidents and help keep the road open during winter and other adverse weather events. It also includes key features like wildlife crossings and improved lighting that will improve safety and protect the environment.”

In June 2020, CDOT was awarded a $60.7-million Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for significant improvements to Vail Pass on I-70. This, combined with other funding sources, will allow for the construction of the first phase of the project, totaling $140.4 million. Initial construction activities focus on reconstructing the truck ramp near Mile Point 182, just east of Vail, and installing a highway closure system near Mile Point 190 at the top of Vail Pass. The truck ramp reconstruction recently began with light construction impacts. More significant construction activities will start in spring 2022, spanning 10 miles of Interstate 70 from East Vail to the top of Vail Pass. Those improvements will include a new eastbound auxiliary lane from MP 185-190.

“With only two lanes currently in each direction, I-70 is often completely closed during an incident to prevent secondary crashes, protect first responders, and re-open the interstate in an efficient and safe manner,” Rapp said. “The addition of the third lane, the eastbound auxiliary lane, will allow for emergency responders to close the lane of the incident plus an additional lane to protect responders, while still keeping the third lane open for traffic."

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The improvement project also includes location-specific improved curves, widened shoulders and bridge replacement, as well as improved signage, new wildlife underpasses and fencing, and relocation of two miles of the Vail Pass recreational trail. Major construction will be completed in 2024. 

“It’s exciting to see this project coming to fruition after years of planning,” Hall said. “The Vail Pass project has embraced working with important planning guidelines and incorporated fruitful feedback from all stakeholders to better strike the balance in minimizing environmental impacts, and adhering to community values, while still completing the required improvements.”

Vail Pass is a challenging section of I-70 in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Completed in 1979, the pass as we know it has struggled to keep up with Colorado's growing population and traffic while still serving as an essential connection in Colorado and the nation’s transportation network. Vail Pass is also subject to extreme weather and harsh natural elements. The resulting wear and tear and challenging driving conditions come at a cost: the crash rate on Vail Pass is the highest for all of I-70 in Colorado, per million vehicle miles traveled, with 558 crashes from 2014 to 2016. The INFRA grant will save taxpayer dollars by helping reduce accidents and minimize costly detours. The estimated economic impact for detours is $1 million for every hour I-70 is closed.

“With so much riding on the efficiency of this stretch of I-70, this project looks to have a very high return on investment,” Tolliver said. “With a 1.75 benefit-to-cost ratio, we know the $140 million is money well-spent."

Design of the I-70 West Vail Pass Auxiliary Lanes project started in early 2021 on the Phase 1 INFRA Improvements that have identified funding. The Phase 1 INFRA Improvements include:

  • An eastbound I-70 auxiliary lane with widened shoulders between Mile Points 185 and 190
  • Westbound curve modifications with widened shoulders at Mile Points 186 and 188
  • Bridge replacement at eastbound Mile Point 185.3  
  • Truck ramp reconstruction at Mile Point 182
  • Improved signage and incorporation of Active Traffic Management system
  • Variable speed limit signs
  • Highway closure system
  • Six wildlife underpasses and fencing
  • Relocation of the Vail Pass recreational trail between Mile Points 185 and 187
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To kick off construction, the project team launched a virtual project announcement with an overview of the initial construction activities, and look ahead to significant construction starting in 2022.

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