If you live in Summit County or visit often, you’ve noticed what seems like significant jumps in weekend foot and vehicle traffic.
Recently released figures show it’s not just your imagination.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) confirmed a record number of commuters — more than 1.3 million — traveled through Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnel along Interstate 70 during just the month of July, many of who were headed to, or at least, stopping in Summit. That’s more than a 7-percent upswing (almost 87,000 more cars) over the same month total for 2015. It was last year that the tunnel also experienced an all-time high in a single year with 11.8 million vehicles.
Not only that, three July 2016 weekends (that’s Friday, Saturday and Sunday) now account for the top-three counts ever through the mountain tunnel, each north of 150,000. July 29-31 is the new record-holder (153,503), with July 22-24 finishing a close second (153,214). And those two Sundays are now also No. 1 and No. 2 for the highest 24-hour traffic period in history, 54,061 and 53,909, respectively. August totals are typically available by the first week of September.
“Man, it’s been packed in the towns,” said Thad Noll, assistant county manager. “You just feel there are more people here, whether it’s Breckenridge or Frisco, Dillon — there’s more people. It’s backed up with ‘Yikes, those are big numbers.’”
The news corresponds with consistent word that the Denver metro area is increasing in population at a much faster rate than the national average. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, while the rest of the country saw steady growth of 0.8 percent, Denver expanded by 58,500 people, or 2.1 percent. That’s more than 1,100 flooding the state per week, which is on par with past annual surges as well.
“That kind of growth equals more people traveling up here,” said Noll, even if one might assume Summit and other mountain communities would see that born out more during the winter. “This is not an anomaly — the summer volumes are higher. The difference is the traffic is spread out through the course of the day.”
Whether it’s the result of Colorado’s booming population — some projections see Denver’s populace ballooning from its current 5.5 million people to between 8.7 and 10.3 million by 2050 — or of seasonal variations like a positive economy, low gas prices or milder temperatures at elevation, the fact is passenger travel on the state’s mountain corridor is on the uptick. And it’s not likely to end any time soon.
“In summer, the gates are open,” said CDOT spokeswoman Tracy Trulove. “I’m not aware we would hit a capacity, but what we can’t control is the volume, and we’re already seeing more cars on the road. We’ve been experiencing it for a while now, and, as the trend increases, congestion and traffic are only going to get worse.”
While she couldn’t speculate as to why this summer has been so busy, with 2016 currently better than 3 percent ahead of the year prior, which would put it on pace to once again break the all-time high through Eisenhower Tunnel, she said Colorado’s transportation experts spend a lot of time asking how they can maintain this important infrastructure system that only seems to see continued growth each year.
Along those lines, the initial planning stages are already underway for doubling the capability of the Exit 203 off-ramp from I-70 into parts of Summit County. Due to blockages along the single-lane roundabout leading to Frisco and Breckenridge that more and more extend back out onto the highway, it is anticipated that it will be no more than a few years before it receives a facelift.
More people in the Summit community may be a larger strain on local roadways equivalent to that of residents’ patience, but it also produces positive impacts for area businesses and sales tax revenues. While official tax numbers are not available from each town until the 20th of the following month, Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson said he’s already heard from town officials that totals from last month are up.
“The towns have been saying July numbers are off the charts,” he said. “It’s great to see those activity levels, but it makes me think of the needs of those workers to serve all the additional people coming here — whether it’s restaurants, kitchens, housekeeping, retail.”
Davidson said he’s heard from a handful of businesses that have noted they’re desperate to hire more staff with the influx of tourism and people through the county but can’t because there’s no place for more employees to live. As that’s another difficult problem the county and its towns are also trying to manage, it leaves him with a single question: “How much can we handle?”
“Honest to gosh, ‘Holy cow, that’s great,’” Davidson said of his initial reaction of the increased Eisenhower Tunnel traffic flows. “Everything is so labor intense with regard to our activities, though, and I wonder where are we going to put the employees to serve them? It’s positive if we can keep up with it, but it’s not like we have a choice.”