“More Mountains, Less Traffic:” Managing travel demand on Colorado’s I-70 Corridor

By Mary Ebeling

During ski season in Colorado, weekend traffic on I-70 between Denver and the mountain destinations is the stuff of legend, with an auto trip that takes about 2 hours under normal conditions taking up to 10 hours in worst-case scenarios like the snowstorms of February, 2014. CDOT, partnering with mountain towns and ski resorts through the I-70 Coalition, has developed a coordinated response to help manage travel demand for those driving between Front Range communities and the popular mountain resorts. This effort suggests that close coordination between DOTs, the private sector, and the traveling public creates stronger, potentially longer-lasting partnerships to manage travel demand in areas where expansion of highway infrastructure is undesirable or not practical.

CDOT’s response to the need to manage travel demand on the constrained I-70 corridor, particularly in the winter, pairs some traditional strategies with new, creative initiatives. These strategies include: use of snowplows during storms as escort vehicles through dangerous mountain passes; encouraging travelers to flex their travel times through programs like the Peak Drive Challenge, which offers incentives for shifting travel times; sponsoring carpools and vanpools; and hiring an incident command manager to assist in a coordinated response to traffic challenges along the corridor. Performance measures developed to track these efforts suggest that CDOT’s and the coalition’s efforts are producing positive results.

Strong partnerships helped with the TDM efforts. The I-70 Coalition—a group of mountain counties and towns, businesses, and regional planning agencies—has developed a website that provides real-time travel updates, information on carpooling and shuttle bus service, and links to incentives to shift travel times. Incentives include later check out times, reduced prices on lift tickets and lodging, dinner specials, etc. The coalition also supports improved rail service.

A related collaborative effort between Amtrak, Union Pacific, Winter Park ski area, and Denver’s RTD offers a case study for managing travel demand on the I-70 corridor. The 2015 ski season saw the restoration of Amtrak’s ski train between Denver and Winter Park, the closest ski resort to Denver. Offering this service proved a huge success; with all 900 tickets for the two trains selling out within hours of the announcement that the service was available. It appears this service could be expanded to regular service next season, assuming Amtrak can negotiate an agreement to share the tracks with Union Pacific.

Operations are becoming increasingly critical to a DOTs’ ability to provide access to destinations. Improving DOTs’ performance in this area is the topic for SSTI’s March webinar. Presenters include Don Hunt, recently retired secretary of the Colorado DOT, and Dennis Motiani, executive director of the new National Operations Center of Excellence. The webinar is on Tuesday, March 24, 1:00 PM Central (2:00 PM Eastern). For more information or to register, follow this link.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.