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Colorado DOT Creates Westbound I-70 Mountain Express Lane for Safer, Easier Travel

by: Larry Bernstein
Colorado is known for the Rocky Mountains and for skiing. When residents of the Denver metro area want to get to the Rocky Mountains, they use Interstate 70. As the Denver Metro area has grown by over 10 percent between 2010 and 2020 – or nearly 300,000 people – I-70 has become overcrowded.

There’s a huge spike in traffic from Friday afternoons to Sunday evenings during both summer and winter that has led to ever-increasing periods of slow traffic. To address this issue and for safety reasons, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is undertaking the I-70 Mountain Express Lane project.

Following Up Past Construction
The current project is focused solely on the westbound side of I-70. In 2015, an eastbound mountain express lane was installed. It has succeeded in terms of alleviating congestion and reducing travel times.

The express lane on the westbound side will cover 12 miles between the Veterans Memorial Tunnels and Empire Junction. “This is a continuation of a long process of improving infrastructure along I-70,” said Jeffrey Hampton of CDOT. As the Project Manager, Hampton oversees a staff of 30 and is responsible for day-to-day operations. “This is an interim operational improvement as we needed to fix a problem now,” said Hampton. The goal is to implement a more permanent solution within the next 15 to 20 years.

While the project does not cover all of I-70, this is one of the most congested stretches of interstate in the entire mountain corridor.

The 12-mile segment express lane to be added will start at the bottom of the canyon. Currently, there are two lanes along with a shoulder headed westward on I-70.

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The shoulder will be widened and turned into the tolled express lane. Because the lane can only be used during peak periods when traffic count thresholds are exceeded – the other days it will remain as a shoulder – it’s known as a Peak Period Shoulder Lane, or PPSL.

Regarding the toll, “The PPSL will be tolled whenever it’s opened,” said CDOT Spokesperson Presley Fowler. “However, travelers always have the option of using the other general purpose lanes and having a free trip.”

Other elements of the project include repaving the westbound lanes along the 12-mile stretch, installing MSE retaining walls, rock blasting, rock mesh work, and drainage/utility work in a town along the route.

Connecting the Community
I-70 was constructed in the mid to late 1950’s. The road goes through multiple towns that count on tourism to keep them vibrant. As such, these towns have a vested interest in seeing the project get done.

“Some people saw this road get built and feel very connected to it,” said Hampton. “They had viewshed and environmental concerns.”

There are also economic benefits. A study was done that indicated businesses benefited when the eastbound lane was added. People are more willing to stop if they know the traffic is moving.

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Due to the increased stakes and emotional connection, it was particularly important to have public approval. “The stakeholders have played a part in the process, and we’ve worked in partnership with them,” said Hampton.

This was done through the I-70 Mountain Corridor Context Sensitive Solutions. This process brings together a multi-disciplined, multi-interest stakeholder group tasked with providing guidance for future studies, designs, and construction projects to ensure that stakeholder values – such as preserving and maintaining scenic and environmental integrity – are incorporated into the project decision making process. Hampton credits the stakeholders with helping get the project off the ground. “They have the ear of the governor and were able to push to get this project off the ground,” said Hampton.

New Traffic Technology
To maximize driver safety, CDOT is incorporating leading-edge technologies and materials. These technologies include creating smart work zones. Getting truck traffic in and out of the work zone can be a hazard as they move slowly causing people to have to put on their brakes, which can lead to fender benders.

CDOT utilizes technology at the egress points to indicate a truck is entering the roadway. This signals blank electronic message signs up to 2,500 feet away to note what is happening. “Studies have shown that when a blank message sign goes on, they are a good visual key,” said Hampton. “These signs only turn on when a truck enters the roadway.”

The roadway will also feature queue detection. This technology measures travel time through the corridor and records it. If the sensors record slowdowns in certain zones, message boards will flash that traffic ahead is slowed or stopped – warning drivers well in advance to slow down.

Additionally, the project is installing four variable message signs that CDOT can control and display different messages to warn travelers of any issues on the roadway. The project will also install variable speed limit signs on which the speed limit can be lowered by CDOT during inclement weather or emergencies on the highway to slow traffic prior to reaching backups or incidents to avoid the rear-end type accidents that are so frequent.

Budget and Schedule
This project has a budget of $70 million. It, along with two other CDOT projects, are being entirely financed by a $100 million Federal INFRA grant.

According the United States Department of Transportation, “INFRA discretionary grants support the Administration’s commitment to fixing our nation’s infrastructure by creating opportunities for all levels of government and the private sector to fund infrastructure, using innovative approaches to improve the processes for building significant projects, and increasing accountability for the projects that are built.”

The project, which began in July of 2019, is anticipated to be complete right before Thanksgiving (at the time of publication). Other related work will continue till the spring of 2021 and toll collection will start that summer.

COVID-19 both helped and hurt construction according to Hampton. “While we were able to have additional lane closures, it was difficult to get resources to and from the project.” 

In addition, CDOT tried to be sensitive to the local towns. “The towns along I-70 need people to get to the area and frequent local businesses, and COVID-19 was terrible for them,” said Hampton. “We’ve tried to work around certain times so as not to impact events and we aim to balance that with the need to get construction done.”

Despite the challenges, the project is on schedule. “It’s a credit to the communication between CDOT and the contractor,” said Hampton. “We’re able to get in front of problems before they get bigger.”

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When the Westbound I-70 Mountain Express Lane project is complete, travelers will have greater time reliability as they head out to the Rocky Mountains. Travelers may even stop off along their journey, knowing that the ride to their destination will be smoother.

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