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Are Floyd Hill’s white-knuckle days numbered?

A few miles of “pinched” lanes ruin the mountain experience for travelers and neighbors alike. CDOT’s next megaproject is a $700 million effort to move beyond 1959.

Vehicles on Interstate 70 near Floyd Hill exit on Feb. 23, 2022, near Denver. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

IDAHO SPRINGS — If a giant pinched a lifeline of a U.S. highway between its fingers, that would be Floyd Hill.

These six tortured mountain miles of Interstate 70 lose a westbound lane at the top of Floyd Hill, squeezing capacity from 6,000 vehicles an hour to 3,600 an hour. Add in a white knuckle blizzard on the 6% grade sections between Genesee and Idaho Springs, and the nightmare is complete.

Every driver has a story.

Skiers, hikers and through-truckers tell tales of interminable traffic jam boredom, punctuated by the momentary chaos of sideways skids in 6-inches of slush.

Residents of Floyd Hill, Genesee, Lookout Mountain and Idaho Springs, meanwhile, speak of near-daily delays just getting back home from Denver errands, against the fearful backdrop of not being able to evacuate from a wildfire.

“The waist of the hourglass,” as Clear Creek County Commissioner Randy Wheelock describes the Floyd Hill pinch from the Beaver Brook exit to where U.S. 6 joins the highway in a canyon of Clear Creek, “is one of the largest if not the largest part-time traffic jam and congestion pieces in the entire Denver region.”

Wheelock’s personal story is everyone’s Floyd Hill story.

“You’re trying to climb the hill,” he said. “You think that somewhere a few miles ahead there must be a wreck. And after a few miles, you realize it’s just three lanes squeezing to two, or two lanes squeezing to one to get around an 18-wheeler or a bus.”

We don’t go anywhere, starting Friday.

— Bill Coffin, Floyd Hill resident

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, standing at Clear Creek near the 63-year-old bridge where I-70 bottoms out and zig-zags through the creek canyon toward Idaho Springs, described driving toward Vail this month to meet his daughters for a rare ski day.

“I ended up sitting on Floyd Hill and this traffic for I think more than an hour, and all that was happening was people were coming in off Highway 6 to get to I-70. So that’s my most recent and frustrating memory,” Bennet said.

The Colorado Department of Transportation and community leaders would like to make your Floyd Hill stories less dramatic. Rebuilding Floyd Hill is the next mega-project for CDOT, a $700 million overhaul adding an express lane and replacing a massive bridge to ease the pinch and unclog the drain on the way into Idaho Springs.

With I-70 in the background, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to the press during an event at the western base of Floyd Hill in Clear Creek County on Thursday, Feb. 24. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Pinch

About 70,000 vehicles each weekend day brave the stretch that begins at the top of Floyd Hill and ends a few miles later after bottoming out at Clear Creek and careening toward the Twin Tunnels and Idaho Springs. Along the way, I-70 westbound merges three lanes into two and picks up thousands more vehicles from U.S. 6 joining at the canyon bottom. Heading east on I-70, heavy tourist and truck traffic climbs three lanes from the Twin Tunnels, often straight into morning sun rays or slush running downhill in a blizzard.

“The stretch there is narrower than Colorado Boulevard,” said Rebecca White, director of CDOT’s Division of Transportation Development. “It’s just such a glaring little stretch. And frankly, it just doesn’t make sense for the safety, the mobility, the environment . . . any of the needs up there.”

How “the pinch” or “the waist” looks on paper, with the major hit on traffic flow at the top of Floyd Hill on the right when the highway moves from three lanes down to two. (CDOT)

Separate from adding capacity, Floyd Hill needs to be rebuilt for the more basic reasons of traffic safety and crumbling infrastructure, CDOT and local officials say. The viaducts over Clear Creek and connections to U.S. 6 must be replaced no matter what.

While they are there, it’s time to attack capacity, CDOT adds. There’s neither room nor money to add a full third lane heading west downhill and through the Clear Creek canyon. So the plan is to extend the Mountain Express lanes that have somewhat eased I-70 traffic farther west.

Standing at the bottom of Floyd Hill Thursday afternoon to back the project and congratulate state politicians for paving the way, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg likened the regular I-70 clogs to international shipping woes.

“This is part of what America’s supply chains look like, when trucks are backed up or unable to get to where they need to go in a timely fashion,” Buttigieg said, as semi-trucks bellowed through downshifts overhead. “That is something you will see in shipping times and in prices at the store.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks during a press event regarding new federal funding slated for I-70’s Floyd Hill in Clear Creek County on Thursday, Feb. 24. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Whether the express lanes will be tolled or have a high-occupancy requirement, or both, is yet to be determined, CDOT officials say. The HOV part is tricky, they said, since many cars stuck in the regular lanes already carry three people for skiing or family trips; the HOV floor may have to be set above three for the Mountain Express lane to offer any relief.

The planned Mountain Express lane, like the previous ones, does not meet federal requirements for a full weight-bearing interstate lane. In federal eyes, the express lanes are glorified shoulders, and should not host big intercity buses. So, like the earlier express lanes, it cannot carry the Bustang mass transit that might offer more relief. A Floyd Hill reality that leads to . . .

The Transit Fix

CDOT wants you to learn the name Pegasus, and learn to love it, starting in May, long before the actual rebuild of Floyd Hill begins.

CDOT’s mountain bus service, Bustang and, in ski season, Snowstang, has proved popular and takes cars off the hill. But Bustang gets stuck in Floyd Hill’s regular lanes just like everyone else, and Bustang passengers will still be stuck there after the rebuild, watching Pegasus fly by.

Enter a fleet of 14-passenger short buses branded Pegasus, with Wi-Fi chargers, and ski and bike stowage. To start changing consumer habits long before Floyd Hill construction makes the area even more impassable, CDOT will start Pegasus this May from Union Station to Avon, with stops in Idaho Springs, Frisco and Vail.

“All of us are looking at Google Maps on a Saturday morning.”

— Matt Frommer, SWEEP

Wheelock says the Pegasus concept is “the best.” Short of long-held Front Range dreams of a high-speed train along I-70, a comfortable and convenient bus system is finally a nod that transportation needs to change, Wheelock said.

Until now, he said, I-70 drivers used the same technology “that my grandfather used 100 years ago, an internal combustion engine, one person hauling stuff around, whether it’s the hay to the barn, or it’s people with their ski gear.”

“We have an obligation to future generations to upgrade and move to a more modern mode,” he said.

Floyd Hill westbound has long been a problem because it pinches from three lanes to two at the top, but the steep grade and sharp curves are also major traffic hazards. (CDOT traffic studies)

“We can’t build our way out of this,” said Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition of elected officials, communities and businesses focused on mountain travel improvements. “We do need to be focusing heavily on getting more people in fewer cars or in transit vehicles. It’s absolutely critical.”

CDOT’s involvement in mountain public transit is just as critical, Bowes said. The private sector has never been able to build robust I-70 transit, given the seasonal nature of demand and the heavy federal and state regulation of the corridor.

“I think it’s perfectly appropriate that the state stepped in to fill that role,” she said.

Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition, poses for a portrait above Interstate 70 on Floyd Hill in Clear Creek County on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. Photo by Andy Colwell, special to The Colorado Sun

The Neighbors

So everyone who has been a through-driver of Floyd Hill has a story. Now think of the houses perched above I-70 on the hill itself, and imagine being one of those residents having to get to and from those homes multiple times every day.

It’s not the traffic noise from I-70 that bothers Bill Coffin most, at his home shielded from the interstate on the south side of Floyd Hill. “It’s bad when it goes silent.”

That’s when Floyd Hill residents know traffic is stuck again, no one is moving, and that even if you could leave your home for work or an errand or travel, it feels like you’d never get back.

“We don’t go anywhere, starting Friday,” said Coffin, who also serves on the advisory boards working with CDOT on I-70 solutions.

The planned $700 million reworking of Floyd Hill extends to traffic and wildlife improvements from Genesee on the east to Idaho Springs on the west. (CDOT)

“We have ambulances and fire trucks that need to reach those people on that hill. And that’s just one example,” said Wheelock, the county commissioner. “People on Friday night are simply trying to get home from work and they pull off at the exit and they’re sitting in a line of traffic over a mile long.”

The Floyd Hill makeover will — in addition to easing clogs with the express lane — extend the frontage road from U.S. 6 on the west side of the hill, to the Central City Highway exit. It will also employ roundabouts and through-lanes on I-70 exits to give locals better access.

You’re trying to climb the hill. You think that somewhere a few miles ahead there must be a wreck. And after a few miles, you realize it’s just three lanes squeezing to two . . .

— Randy Wheelock, Clear Creek County Commissioner

Other extras for people not just traveling through include an expanded parking lot at the top of the hill with a phalanx of new electric vehicle chargers, and a shuttle stop for Pegasus and other local transit. The recreation trail along Clear Creek at the bottom of the hill will get a major overhaul, a key link in a long-term project connecting bikers and hikers along the creek all the way to Golden.

The neighbors include those on four feet. Elk, deer, bighorn sheep and other wildlife frequently wander onto I-70 between Genesee and Idaho Springs. It’s catastrophic for them and can be devastating for the humans as well. Two complex wildlife bridges and funnel-fencing will be built, one near the Genesee exit, the other just north of I-70 where U.S. 40 splits off toward Empire.

The Lost Opportunity?

Many eyes will be on the Floyd Hill project, which won’t start construction in earnest until 2023 and will take an estimated five years to complete. The digging, the lane-shunting traffic delays and the progress will play out every night in front of local news and weather cameras.

The $700 million price tag is the largest “next” for CDOT after high-visibility rebuilds of Central 70 through north Denver and the I-25 South Gap through Douglas County to Castle Rock.

But it’s also going to be the first high-profile CDOT project built under new state rules aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, hailed locally and nationally as a bold innovation in the climate change fight. CDOT must now demonstrate how each big road project fits into a larger scheme to trim emissions and cut demand for single-occupancy vehicle traffic.

And that’s where some environmental groups see opportunity sliding away down Floyd Hill.

“I wouldn’t say we’re excited about this being the first project out of the gate,” said Matt Frommer, transportation analyst with the nonprofit Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. Expanded highway capacity will fill up with expanded vehicle traffic and their accompanying pollution, environmental groups say.

Traffic flows along I-70 at Floyd Hill in Clear Creek County on Wednesday, Feb. 23. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One measure of whether the new rules make a dent in greenhouse gasses is whether they cut vehicle miles traveled from what would occur without the project, by pushing people into mass transit or car pooling. The Floyd Hill plan — dubbed the “canyon viaduct” alternative after new tunnel bores were rejected — doesn’t do that.

CDOT projections for 2045 actually show a 1% increase in vehicle miles traveled after the rebuild compared to a no-action status quo. What would change dramatically is travel time in the stretch from Evergreen Parkway to the Mount Evans exit. CDOT projections show the new roadway cutting “vehicle hours traveled” by 50% from no-action estimates.

The debate immediately falls back to induced demand, a fiercely contested part of the discussion over the new CDOT greenhouse gas rules. The way Americans travel, this argument goes, any gain on congestion by reworking Floyd Hill lanes is likely to be negated by everyone who had given up on mountain trips and now thinks the corridor is fixed.

“Everyone knows someone who wants to go skiing up at the I-70 ski resorts and chooses not to because they don’t want to sit in hours of traffic,” Frommer said. “Any project that would reduce the travel time would necessarily attract more traffic to the corridor. That’s just how supply and demand works. All of us are looking at Google Maps on a Saturday morning.”

For $700 million, SWEEP argues, CDOT could help build 15 bus rapid transit routes in the Denver metro area, moving people efficiently and making big gains on miles traveled.

“It’s really just a reflection of our spending priorities,” Frommer said.

CDOT is quick to respond that leaders were consistent when they helped push for the greenhouse gas rules: Attacking pollution was an add-on, not a replacement for, CDOT’s basic mission of making safe roads and moving people around the state. CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew told everyone who would listen before the greenhouse rules passed that big, overdue capacity projects like Floyd Hill would still get done.

“Our view is that having an interstate system that functions at critical points is a priority,” Lew said. Starting Pegasus service long before the project is finished is part of that process of changing peoples’ movement habits, Lew said.

“So I don’t think it’s depressing,” she said. “I just think we’re solving for multiple problems.”

This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members.

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I-70’s westbound lanes flow along Clear Creek at the western base of Floyd Hill in Clear Creek County on Wednesday, Feb. 23. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.