Tunneling would provide a number of benefits resulting in substantial savings that need to be included in any analysis conducted on the proposal.
Current traffic operations on Vail Pass have created an environmental disaster, essentially destroying Black Gore Creek as a viable fishery. Excess winter traction sand has migrated from the roadway, filling the stream bed. A recent survey by the Eagle River Watershed Council found that virtually all beaver dams on the creek have been silted in, eliminating fish habitat.
Particularly important is the fact that this drainage system supports one of the few remaining native populations of Colorado River cutthroat trout.
In 2005, the Colorado Department of Transportation released a Sediment Control Action Plan that called for a $20 million capital investment in various structures as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual maintenance costs for removing sand. These costs would either be unnecessary or greatly reduced by a tunnel.
Other benefits would derive from a tunnel, including a safer passage through an area of Interstate 70 that is particularly treacherous in winter; travel time would be reduced for commercial and noncommercial uses; and obvious savings in reduced maintenance requirements would also result. CDOT has indicated its intent to develop auxiliary lanes on Vail Pass and has said they will begin studies soon. Construction of the tunnel would obviate the need for auxiliary lanes resulting in additional savings of millions of dollars.
CDOT has said it will prepare an Environmental Assessment, for the Federal Highway Administration, to support federal funding for the expansion project. Ed Fink, referenced in the News story, will conduct the studies. The National Environmental Policy Act requires that the highway administration consider all reasonable alternatives in coming to a decision on the auxiliary lanes project.
Colorado Trout Unlimited has been concerned about the degradation of Black Gore Creek and the unwillingness of CDOT to take positive measures to aggressively address the problem. When they formally announce their intent to conduct environmental studies, Colorado Trout Unlimited will request an in-depth study of the tunnel alternative as a reasonable and technically feasible alternative. We encourage other individuals and groups who have an interest in conservation to also request these studies.
Gary W. Frey is a member of Colorado Trout Unlimited. He is a resident of Lakewood.