Headlights on I-70 from skier traffic

It’s 6 a.m. on a cold and blustery Sunday morning in late January.  By all rights, anyone in a sane frame of mind would be snug in their bed, sleeping deeply, covers pulled tightly up to their noses.  But not in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado….

One look from high above Interstate 70 tells the story.  Nothing but headlights as far as the eye can see on the westbound lanes.  What could possibly provoke all these people to not only be up at this hour, but already be in their cars on the move?  Only one thing — a powder day!

This is the result of a perfect snow storm, that dumped around a foot of new snow at just about every ski resort along the I-70 corridor, on a weekend no less.  Not to be deprived of a single perfect turn, it seemed all of the Front Range residents have packed up their families, their skis, and their snowboards and hit the roads as early as possible.

In most urban areas, massive traffic jams are created by the morning and evening commutes.  But mountain country creates a different type of gridlock, mountain-style.  The urban dwellers of Denver, Colorado Springs and Boulder want nothing more than to escape to the mountains during their precious weekends.  And the main interstate highway leading to the mountains bears the brunt of that.

Any Friday night in winter or summer brings a flood of cars heading west into the mountains.  And Sunday afternoons and evenings creates massive traffic jams that can extend up to 60 miles or more as all those weekend warriors return back home.  We’ve been privy to the kind of traffic both during a busy August Sunday as well as this past month during the height of ski season.

Colorado’s Department of Transportation has employed all kinds of methods to stem the gridlock, most recently implementing a toll Express Lane for the sum total of 12 miles, and getting people to pay as much as $6.00 or more for the privilege of bypassing traffic for that same 12 miles.  A stoplight just west of the Eisenhower Tunnel provides metering of traffic heading east as well.

But, the latest conspiracy employed has irked me to no end.

One of our favorite places to ski is Winter Park Ski Resort.  Besides the great terrain and abundant snowfall, a main attraction is the ability to drive there spending little to no time on the dreaded Interstate 70.  Because Nederland is located off the Peak to Peak highway, we drive directly south connecting with the Central City Expressway.  At that point, we can either drive 10 miles on I-70, before taking the Empire exit or simply drive a frontage road bypassing the interstate altogether.


Traffic backed up on Berthoud Pass due to Empire traffic light

I’ve been feeling pretty smug about my ability to avoid the whole I-70 mess, until a recent Sunday driving back from Winter Park.  As we wound our way over the 11,000-foot high Berthoud Pass and started descending, we came to a complete halt.  Initially, we figured there must have been an accident as we had never encountered this before.  Then we thought perhaps the traffic on I-70 was so bad it had caused this back up.  But the line of cars inched along at a snail’s pass, with nary a police car or accident to be seen.  What on earth was going on?

Turns out a minor traffic light in the tiny town of Empire (population 276) at a seldomly used intersection was turning red every 30 seconds, allowing just a few cars to get through.  After taking 1 1/2 hours for what would normally be a 30-minute drive, I was even more irked to finally arrive at the entrance ramp to the highway to see traffic humming along at a rapid pace.  It must have been some malfunction with the traffic light and surely once they realized it, it would never happen again.

Fast forward two more weeks ahead on a Sunday afternoon, and there we are again stuck in traffic on U.S. 40, miles outside of Empire.  We peer up ahead and see that same traffic light and it’s red — AGAIN!  I’m now convinced that powers that be with the Colorado Department of Transportation have conspired to rig the light on Sundays, the heaviest traffic day, to somewhat alleviate congestion on the highway.  Despite my greatest efforts to avoid the snarls of I-70, CDOT and the Town of Empire have found a way to embroil me in traffic woes anyway.  Yes, the Empire light has struck back.