Skiers who regularly drive from Denver up I-70 to their favorite resort know the dreaded feeling. Rounding a scenic corner, they’re confronted with a gridlock of cars, sometimes backed up for miles. Even when the mountain highway is fender-bender free, weekend traffic between Denver and the slopes has become so heavy that normal driving times are often double or longer.
Traffic congestion between urban areas and ski resorts is becoming an increasingly intractable problem throughout North America, but no roadway suffers ski congestion more than Colorado’s I-70. The main route from Denver to many of the state’s top ski areas—including Vail, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Aspen—curves, climbs and drops abruptly, and it’s usually jammed with big rigs carrying loads across the state. Traffic has become so stifling that some Denver skiers have quit skiing on weekends. A few have quit altogether.
Kent Druckenmiller, who grew up in Denver, doesn’t ski on weekends anymore. “It took me eight hours to get home one time,” he says. “And even on weekdays it’s stop-and-go.” His new strategy: “I get up earlier than I should and leave earlier than I should to avoid the delays.”
Melanie Mills, director of the trade association Colorado Ski Country, says simply that “I-70 isn’t providing the kind of experience we’d like it to on the front and back ends of a ski trip.” The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce estimates that I-70 congestion costs residents, ski resorts and other businesses around $840 million a year.
Though I-70 winter congestion has been increasing steadily for a decade, the 10 busiest weekend traffic counts were all registered within the past six years. Bob Wilson, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), sums up the problem concisely: “There’s too little highway and too much traffic.”
It’s been three years since lifelong skier Andy Beekman, 36, purchased a Colorado season pass. “Traffic was the deciding factor,” he says. “I’d love to see them come up with a subsidized busing system as a temporary fix.” Rather than heading to I-70’s big-name resorts, the Denver resident backcountry skis so he can avoid peak traffic hours.
I-70 might be the thorniest highway problem in ski country, but it isn’t the only one. Busy weekend traffic makes I-80 from San Francisco to California’s Lake Tahoe resorts another frustrating drive. “We get some big backups,” says Mark Dinger, spokesman for the state’s transportation agency. “On a normal day, it’s about a four-hour trip, but on Friday or Sunday afternoons it can turn into a six- or seven-hour trip.” To help relieve congestion, the agency has reached an informal agreement with the trucking industry, whereby big trucks voluntarily stay off the highways on weekends.
Weekend traffic from Salt Lake City, Utah, to the ski areas in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons and around Park City gets heavy, though nothing like the congestion in Colorado or California. At least, not yet. Last year, anticipating a future “I-70–like” problem, Utah officials discussed building tunnels between the canyons to help traffic circulate. The radical plan was abandoned when it turned out to threaten the city’s water supply. The region does already have one advantage—Salt Lake City buses run up to the Cottonwood Canyons resorts, and there are a number of shuttle services running between the airport and Park City.
The current rebuilding of British Columbia’s Sea to Sky Highway, which runs between Vancouver and Whistler, is one success story on how to ameliorate city-to-mountain traffic. The solution, as is often the case, is a combination of government funding and motivation—lots of government funding and motivation.
The narrow, winding road traversing the cliffs that skirt the Pacific between Vancouver and Whistler has been one of Canada’s most dangerous corridors, with hundreds of accidents occurring annually. The International Olympic Committee was reportedly so concerned that it didn’t award the 2010 Winter Olympics to Vancouver until it had assurances that the roadway would be rebuilt. With that mandate, British Columbia embarked on a $600 million reconstruction of the highway that’s now nearing completion: straightening curves, replacing bridges, adding passing lanes and widening shoulders to make it safer, while also significantly cutting driving time to the mountains.
Despite being the busiest ski state in the union, Colorado has had a tough time unclogging its main ski artery. “CDOT started an Environmental Impact Statement on the I-70 corridor in 1997, and there still hasn’t been a final decision,” Mills says. The agency has considered adding extra lanes or building a high-speed train, or both, but the major obstacle has been a lack of funding. “Colorado, like other states, is in a transportation funding crunch,” Mills says.
Disagreement among the various groups who drive, live or do business near the highway has been another obstacle. While many Front Range residents support the mass transit option, for example, many residents in the mountain communities aren’t so sure, says Michael Penny, town manager of Frisco, near Copper Mountain. “What demands would mass transit put on the infrastructure up here, and what does that do to the character of communities all along the corridor?” Meanwhile, a proposal to keep big trucks off the highway during peak traffic times has been opposed by the trucking industry, as well as some mountain resorts and communities that depend on trucks for daily deliveries.
Colorado lawmakers made national headlines last year with a proposal to start charging tolls on I-70 to raise revenue for improvements. That proposal quickly ran out of gas. But tolls are expected to be brought up again in the next legislative session.
For now, CDOT has scaled back its ambitious long-range goals and instead plans to focus on eliminating bottlenecks by straightening the highway or adding lanes in the most troublesome stretches. In the meantime, many Colorado weekend skiers this season are often facing the option of sitting in traffic or getting up before first light to hit first chair.
LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAVE
Before you back the car out of the driveway, do your family a favor and check a traffic report. You’ll get the latest on road conditions and accidents, as well as estimated travel times and weather alerts. And alternate routes are often provided, so you might be able to avoid that two-mile backup from the jackknifed tractor-trailer. Here are contacts for several of skiing’s busiest roadways.
>>Lake Tahoe and California:
511 in state
, select Sea to Sky Highway; 800-550-4997
>>Colorado’s I-70 Corridor:
511 in state