Massive January backups attributed to a ‘perfect storm’ of traffic factors; 280 millions vehicles have passed through the tunnel without a fatality since it opened
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The safety of travelers inside the 1.7-mile Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel is the top priority, Colorado Department of Transportation officials said Tuesday as they updated county commissioners about the possible causes of recent traffic jams on I-70 that were as bad as anyone could remember.
The uprecedented January jams may have been caused by a ‘perfect storm” scenario of other external factors, CDOT managers said. Visit CDOT’s Eisenhower Tunnel page here.
In early January, officials who monitor and managed the flow of cars through the passage under the Continental Divide stopped traffic on the eastbound tunnel approach several times. At one point, traffic backed up along the interstate as far as the Frisco exit, and, as a result, on Highway 9 from Breckenridge.
Reports of the jams led some local officials to believe that CDOT had changed its operations, but tunnel superintendent Mike Salamon said that’s not the case. The only change has been more of an effort to communicate the stoppages in advance using electronic signs along state highways, as Kevin Flynn’s Inside Lane recently reported.
The agency has been following the same protocols that have been in place for 20 years, Salamon said, pointing out that more than 280 million vehicles have passed through the tunnel since it’s completion — and he intends to maintain that safety record. The Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel is the highest vehicular tunnel in the world. Nine workers died during construction of the tunnel.
The traffic-metering, as it’s called, is aimed at preventing standstill traffic inside the bores. That helps ensure access for emergency vehicles stationed at the tunnel, Salamon explained. CDOT managers watch the traffic east of the tunnel carefully. When it looks like the line of cars may start to backup into the tunnel from east to west, they stop cars from entering the west portal.
“I can’t imagine anything worse than watching a school bus burn inside the tunnel and not being able to do anything about it,” he said during the BOCC work session. “There are only limited escape routes and no shoulders in the tunnel. We’ve been able to maintain that safety record because we’re very pro-active in managing the flow through the tunnel,” he added.
“It does seem as though there’s something different this winter,” said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson.
“There’s gridlock every weekend. It’s just a matter of where it occurs,” Salamon replied.
Salamon said that a number of other factors may have combined recently for a “perfect storm” scenario, leading to the unprecedented backups. Those factors could include upstream accidents, leading to a thick slug of traffic approaching the tunnel all at once as the accident scene is cleared, as well as downstream weather and road conditions east of the tunnel.
Some weekend and hourly tunnel traffic counts hovered near record levels at times in January, but the total numbers was down overall for the month from 2009. During the last weekend of January, some hourly counts cracked the top-ten list, but CDOT managers said traffic flow and road conditions on either side of the tunnel are just as important as the sheer numbers when it comes to how they manage the flow of traffic into the portals.
Tunnel facts from CDOT
• Traveling through the Tunnels the public saves 9.1 miles by not having to travel over U.S. Highway 6, Loveland Pass.
• The electric bill averages approximately $70,000 per month.
• The Tunnel operates 24-hours a day, seven days a week, employing 52 full-time employees with job duties that range from round the clock television surveillance, emergency response, tunnel washing, ventilation maintenance, tunnel sweeping, snow removal, heavy equipment servicing and repair, and water treatment.
• In 2000 approximately 28,000 vehicles per day, or 10.3 million vehicles for the year, traveled through the Tunnels.
• During construction approximately 1 million cubic yards of material was cleared from each bore. 190,000 cubic yards of concrete was used for each tunnel lining.
• There were three fatalities on the first bore; six fatalities on the second bore.
• The pilot bore was completed in 1964. The Eisenhower Memorial Bore took five years to complete and was dedicated March 8, 1973. The eastbound Edwin C. Johnson Bore took four years to complete and was dedicated December 21, 1979.