Hickenlooper looks to curb trucking on I-70 to aid skiers

By David O. Williams
Real AspenSeptember 25, 2010
A typical winter traffic jam on Interstate 70.

We all know who wins when an SUV loaded with skiers tangles with a tractor trailer out on the open road on an icy winter day in the Rocky Mountains. The resulting carnage sometimes shuts down high-country highways for hours at a time. There are only losers in such a scenario.

But who wins politically in the battle for supremacy between skier traffic and the state’s trucking industry? That’s a question brought up earlier this month in the Colorado governor’s campaign when Democratic Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper suggested trucking traffic should be somehow curtailed during the peak weekend skier rush between the Front Range and the mountain resorts along Interstate 70.

Hickenlooper said the ability to get quickly from urban areas into the mountains is “what makes Colorado Colorado. That’s what makes us different.” He recommended the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) look at banning westbound truck traffic on Friday afternoons and eastbound trucks on Sunday afternoons.

Not surprisingly, ski industry and trucking industry representatives contacted for this article have widely divergent views on the topic.

“Mayor Hickenlooper’s idea that truck restrictions be explored deserves consideration as well,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, the statewide ski industry lobbying group. “On-time [freight] deliveries are important to all, including ski areas, so this would have to be done thoughtfully and strategically.”

Greg Fulton of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association trucking lobby said such a proposal could have dramatic economic impacts, impeding on-time deliveries both in Colorado and across the nation and adding costs not only for truckers but also the many businesses that rely on prompt freight deliveries.

“Last year was probably one of the lowest freight volumes and number of trucks out on that [I-70] corridor [because of the recession], and we still ended up seeing significant issues and it really didn’t have much to do with trucks,” Fulton said. “You just have a substantial volume of people traveling up to the ski areas in the state, and the issue that needs to be dealt with is how do you better disperse or distribute that part of it.”

Not to worry, according to a CDOT representative who told the Colorado Independent that Hickenlooper’s idea wouldn’t fly anyway.

“It’s not going to happen,” said CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson, who added federal laws prohibit such restrictions on truckers, who pay a large share of the taxes for the highways and “have the same rights as anyone else.”

But a CalTrans spokesman told the Colorado Independent that California, under an agreement struck with the major trucking companies in that state, has been restricting truck traffic on I-80 over Donner Pass since the 1960s. That stretch of interstate connects Sacramento to the ski areas in and around Lake Tahoe.

“We try not to mix trucks and tourists when the weather is bad,” CalTrans spokesman Mark Dinger said, adding the state provides parking areas and can ticket truckers who violate the ban.

Colorado’s trucking lobby spokesman Fulton discounts what’s being done along I-80 in California: “It’s a very minor thing. It’s not anything close to what we have up there [on I-70]. It isn’t even proximate.”

He suggests the ski industry needs to do more to limit the skier traffic on peak weekends.

“Maybe they need to take a page out of what some of the gambling areas have looked at, which is providing incentives for people to get up there earlier or leave later, essentially providing greater incentives for people to ski during the week and other things,” Fulton said.

Colorado Ski Country’s Mills said that’s already being done.

“Ski areas are and will continue to offer great incentives to off-peak skiers, but the Monday to Friday work and school week and limited hours of winter daylight place very real limits on the ability of Front Range skiers to move to off-peak times,” Mills said. “The fact is, we have to look at realistic, incremental improvement strategies for the corridor and implement them now.”

Some observers are concerned that a preferred CDOT alternative for improvements along I-70 released earlier this month is too pie-in-the-sky and will obscure more practical short-term fixes like Hickenlooper’s idea.

The CDOT plan calls for $20 billion in improvements over the next 40 years, including $10 billion for high-speed rail. It would involve interchange improvements, widening some sections and adding more tunnel capacity in places. However, funding remains a huge question mark for any of the components of the CDOT plan.

comments: 3 Comments on "Hickenlooper looks to curb trucking on I-70 to aid skiers"

Mohammed X – Sept. 27, 2010, at 3:14 p.m.

Trucks aren't 100% to blame for the horrendous driving conditions but they do play a significant part of the problem. It would be very beneficial if a solution could be found to alleviate this problem, and it doesn't have to be so black and white as NO trucks Friday afternoon heading west. How about a combination of a few ideas? How about: Metering - during the critical times it would be just just like the interstate on-ramps - trucks would leave an urban center on a spaced interval, be required to keep a set distance between the truck ahead (60 or 120 seconds) and go through this process every 60 miles. Enforcement - keep the slow-pokes out of the left lane (it's only for passing!) Incentives - incentivize trucks to travel during low volume times (after 10pm and before 7am) How about a tax break? Rail - encourage a partnership between trucking and rail to move shipments in an alternative method than the interstate.

The skin industry is getting hit by the negative aspect of the traffic situation. I for one have purchased my ski pass with Eldora this year because of the pain of trying to negotiate I-70.
The representative from the trucking industry needs to be a bit more understanding of their customer base vs the ski operators. Regardless of whether there's an incentive to ski during the week, my skiing will be dictated by my work schedule set by my company and my willingness to take vacation days during the week. Trucking companies plan for schedule constraints and contingencies all the time and they have the ability to be mobile whereas mountains are kinda fixed in place.

Mohammed X – Sept. 27, 2010, at 3:16 p.m.

Oops, don't confuse the skin industry with the skiing industry. Both are fun but very different.

Andrew Ellis – Sept. 28, 2010, at 9:50 a.m.

I agree with Mohammed, truckers are not fully to blame. I can't tell you how many times it wasn't truckers causing the congestion.

I drove up and down 89 times last season and during that stretch I saw more accidents caused by out of state drivers who don't know how to handle driving in those kind of conditions. Also, people who exit at off ramps, and immediately get back on by driving through the off-ramps light and back onto the on-ramp are to blame. By doing that, they cut maybe 30-60 seconds off their trip, but the ripple effect costs more to other drivers because the traffic has to literary stop to let them back onto the highway.

I personally think it should be a traffic offense if you use the method above to shave some time off your trip. You are being an asshole, and causing more harm for your personal gain.

However, I look forward to seeing where our state gets with the high-speed rail being implemented into the I-70 corridor. I heard a little about this last season from some fellowing peers on the lift and it sounded like a really good idea. We just need to find the funding. I can tell you I would pay $200-$300 a year for a high-speed rail pass for how much I go up, and how much of my time is spent sitting in traffic.

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