Monday, November 19, 2012

I-70. Let's Study it to Death

Transportation officials are passing on an opportunity to partner with a private engineering firm to implement a series of improvements aimed at reducing traffic on the Interstate 70 mountain corridor.

Two companies, Parsons and HDR, Inc., submitted co-development proposals in August that laid out plans to make the expensive task of resolving mounting traffic issues in the corridor financially feasible. Citing concerns about the risks involved with each of the proposals, Colorado Department of Transportation officials declined them both.

“We want to go into this slower than just both feet at the same time,” CDOT project manager Jim Bemelen said.

CDOT paid each of the firms $125,000 for the rights to the ideas in their proposals. Bemelen said the stipend is typical and likely wouldn't cover the firms' costs for generating the proposals.

The Parsons plan, deemed to be the better value of the two, proposed constructing a toll-based two- or three-lane reversible express lane facility that would run from

C-470 to Silverthorne, as well as new tunnel bores at both the Eisenhower and Twin Tunnels in the first of three phases of improvements. Phase II calls for express lanes to be extended to Vail. Phase III would have pushed those lanes out to Eagle and included a high-speed rail system if it was determined to be feasible.

HDR pitched an all-lane tolling approach.

“Either one could work,” Bemelen said.

But officials had concerns with both. Though Parsons plan was deemed to be the better value, it called for the new lanes to extend all the way to Summit County in the first phase of development to make the project financially feasible. But CDOT's record of decision, the result of years of studies and investigations required ahead of the improvement project, didn't cover such a broad solution.

“That's the part that had us nervous,” Bemelen said.

Stakeholder objections and uncertainty of revenue projections if the project were scaled down were also cited as concerns.

The I-70 mountain corridor, where weekend traffic frequently stacks up with tourists commuting between the Front Range and the mountains, has been a point of debate and discussion among mountain communities and transportation officials for several years.

After extensive study, CDOT released a programmatic environmental impact statement released in March 2011 recommending a plan that included a series of solutions to address the growing traffic problems in the corridor. The estimated $16-$20 billion package of improvements included a high-speed rail, highway improvements and new lanes and more strategic approaches to improving traffic.

In July 2011, Parsons submitted an unsolicited proposal for a co-development agreement for improvements on the corridor. CDOT opened the process up, inviting other firms to submit proposals as well. Only one other firm did.

The details of both proposals have been kept under wraps to protect proprietary information until transportation officials reached a decision.