As construction gets back underway following winter, the new alignment for State Highway 9 between Frisco and Breckenridge is now less than a month away.
Depending on weather — and right now the forecast calls for snow today and tomorrow — additional paving and road striping are scheduled for early this week on the Iron Springs project. After that's done sometime around mid-May, traffic will be transitioned over to the new route permanently.
"There's a whole list of benefits," said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson. "First off, the new alignment is a safer alignment, and two, given traffic counts, it provides for increased capacity. Number three, the recreational experience with the realigned recreational path is far superior to what we had before."
Davidson, who has held the county seat since December 2006, acknowledges mixed feelings within the community on whether decisions should be made to escalate visitation and aid growth. But, he said, conversations about widening Highway 9 by two lanes occurred well before he took office, and the updated alignment saves significant dollars as well as expedites the process compared to if it had been done along the current road.
"We would have been waiting a very long time for four lanes on the old alignment," he said. "That would have required an incredible amount of money, and the design" would have necessitated a bridge-like structure over Dillon Reservoir for one of the lanes. "So there's significant cost savings."
"It's really going to be spectacular," said assistant county manager Thad Noll. "Even for all the occasional riders, families and people that are on the pathway, man that's going to be beautiful. It'll be so much more pleasant a ride than up the other way."
Until the new pathway can be built, the bike passage will maintain its present trail. The reimagined route will see removal of the guardrail along the bend and better access to the water. In addition, the project will eliminate two highway crossings for bicyclists, shifting both to below-highway connections, to enhance safety.
The new stretch of roadway cuts the total distance traveled by drivers down from 2 miles to 1.5, but it's the element of general safety, according to county leadership, that's been the primary driving force for the project. Straightening out the highway over the hill rather than passing through what can be a tight, icy turn — known as Leslie's Curve — should alleviate accidents at what has been a problem spot.
"Those are funny curves and casual drivers don't recognize it, and they're tricky," said Noll. "There's more crashes there than you would expect on just an open piece of highway. Plus, four lanes will mean fewer slowdowns at the signals and less jockeying for position."
Aside from CDOT, the county, the two towns and a $340,000 contribution from Vail Resorts, the new connector required collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and the Continental Divide Land Trust, a nonprofit that preserves open spaces. The participation of the latter two is also expected to result in strengthened protections for the area, re-vegetation of native grasses and trees, and improvements to the nearby wetlands.
Still, even if some remain a bit perturbed over the project's potential for bringing more people to Summit County, holding off on Iron Springs was never a thought for slowing that development.
"People argued about the wisdom of increasing capacity of the highway or not," said Davidson. "But I think that you can't control growth with a crummy highway — it's a very bad tool. Breckenridge (Ski Resort) experiences 1.6 to 1.7 million visitors a year very reliably, and you're just not going to change that. A two-lane highway wasn't keeping anybody from showing up."