New I-70 mountain express lane expected to open for ski season
Good news for skiers and snowboarders: By the time weekend winter traffic begins to build on Interstate 70 in late December, a new westbound express lane is expected to open.
The 12-mile shoulder lane will be open during Colorado’s mountain morning rush hours — and the Colorado Department of Transportation says it won’t charge any tolls until after ski season ends. The $70 million westbound express lane is being built to mirror an eastbound toll lane that’s been open for peak-period return traffic for nearly five years.
During the winter and spring testing period for new tolling equipment, the extra westbound lane will serve as a third free lane between the Veterans Memorial Tunnels and the U.S. 40 junction at Empire.
But expect construction delays through the lighter fall travel season — especially on weekdays — as crews race to finish roadwork and paving.
“The contractor and our staff have been working real hard to deliver this thing this year,” said Jeffery Hampton, CDOT’s project manager, during a media briefing Friday morning. “This is what we needed for just that extra little push to help us get the pavement down this season and not have to extend anything into the spring, as far as heavy civil construction.”
Crews have closed one lane overnight in the construction zone for much of this year. Starting Monday, single-lane closures will begin earlier — at 1 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, at 5 p.m. on Thursdays and at 9 p.m. on Fridays, to accommodate evening westbound traffic. Both lanes will reopen at 9 a.m. on weekdays, and single-lane closures are still planned on weekends outside of peak hours.
“We expect the closures on Thursdays to be the biggest impact,” Hampton said, since some weekend travelers have been heading into the mountains earlier during the pandemic. Delays should be minor most days but could last up to 30 minutes on Thursdays, he said.
The extended lane closures are expected to last until Nov. 13.
CDOT also plans a traffic shift of the eastbound lanes through Idaho Springs for two weeks, starting Sunday night, to accommodate drainage improvement work on that side of the highway and other I-70 work.
CDOT said tolls would be waived in the new westbound peak-period lane until “later in 2021” but didn’t specify a start date for tolling.
Of course, any good news for I-70 mountain traffic tends to be measured. The eastbound toll lane hasn’t solved I-70’s woes, and the new westbound lane will begin about a mile after a notorious bottleneck at Floyd Hill, which cuts the westbound lanes from three to two. Expect that earlier stretch to continue to have backups on weekend mornings.
CDOT has a roughly $600 million plan to widen that curvy downhill section, including a new tunnel. But it still lacks most of the money needed for that project.
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