The Denver metro region doesn’t have the worst commute times in the country, it doesn’t even make the top 10 list. That’s probably cold comfort you’re not interested in.
This is what you want to know.
The number of people who are considered “super commuters,” or those who travel upward of 90 minutes each day in the metro area are puttering in the slow-lane. And gridlock is regularly becoming a bigger headache for the metro area and its drivers.
There are more than 20,000 people in the region who commute that hour-and-a-half. That number of people has increased by 43 percent in the last decade, according to a report published by Apartment List.
That statistic is easy to believe, especially as there isn’t a shortage of trouble traffic spots. But what makes them so bad? Is it just the influx of people on the commute? Bad planning? Or both?
It’s not so simple in a lot of places across the region. Local and state agencies and traffic planners say sometimes it’s a timing issue. Sometimes it’s a funding issue.
When it comes to traffic, Aurora Traffic Engineer Anna Bunce said her job can be more than just how the roads work.
“Sometimes we manage traffic and sometimes we manage expectations,” she said.
That becomes the case when there’s a lot of development or construction that cause delays. For example, she said, breezing through 5 p.m. traffic at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, where everybody has a similar schedule, is probably more expectation than traffic engineering. It’s not that the roads can’t handle that many people, it’s because everybody wants to go the same direction at the same time.
While peak times play a role in expectations, they can also be crucial for traffic engineering, too. Aurora kicked off a major traffic retiming project this month — its goal is to optimize travel around the city’s corridor. As many as 300 stoplights will be retimed to make sure traffic is moving the best way it can.
But there’s other factors at work in some of the metro area’s more troublesome spots, each problem and solution is unique.
Alameda/Santa Fe and Northbound I-25
There might not be a more maddening spot to hit traffic than where West Alameda Avenue, South Santa Fe Drive and Northbound I-25 all collide into one stand still. That makes it nearly impossible to do anything but inch along toward downtown Denver, and watch the time pass by. Slowly.
CDOT knows it, and they want to do something about it. But the nearby railroad tracks create an added hurdle, which Stacia Sellars, a spokeswoman for CDOT, said is because of Colorado’s significant population growth, which is only expected to double during the next two decades.
The agency launched a Planning and Environmental Linkages study on I-25 between Santa Fe and 20th Street. The agency said it will identify the root causes of congestion, which may include “structural bottlenecks, substandard roadway design and system capacity.”
“The I-25/Santa Fe/Alameda area is currently being constructed in phases. Once CDOT receives funding for each phase/project, we are able to make improvements that help alleviate congestion,” Sellars said. “We currently have three of six phases done in that area through Sixth Avenue.”
But even half-way complete, it might be a while before more work gets done. Only one more phase in the queue may be funded in 2020, she said.
“This phase would improve mostly Alameda, but would also add a ramp from Alameda to northbound I-25 so that we can eliminate the very problematic Cedar on-ramp,” Sellars said. “This phase might help some, but to complete the overall project, the other two phases would require moving the railroad.”
Another phase would actually shift the railroad tracks along I-25 between Alameda and Sixth Avenue.
“The other phase would grade separate the railroad crossings from Santa Fe and Kalamath, which would also have benefits,” Sellars said.
PROBLEM: Officials are trying to figure that out, but they suspect everything
SOLUTIONS: Move the railroad tracks away from the highway, refashion some on-ramps, spend a lot of money on yet-to-be identified or designed improvements
EXPECTATION FACTOR: Move to Greeley
I-270 and I-70
The 10-mile stretch of I-70 between I-25 and Chambers Road has been a work in progress since 2012. From the air, the portion of highway where I-70 and I-270 converge looks tangled. For drivers that mess of intertwining highway makes getting to or from work a slow crawl.
In short, Colorado Department of Transportation Traffic Engineer Ben Kiene said the problem there is the number of lanes versus how many cars are on the road. Put simply, the traffic is just really bad there.
“It’s kind of a typical freeway bottleneck,” he said.
Ideally, he added, there should be another lane right there. But lanes are expensive and they take up more land -— which isn’t exactly a simple fix. However, express lanes are planned for that area, which is expected to help.
I-70 was built in the 1960s when traffic was lighter — much, much lighter, and the population was smaller — much, much smaller. Typically traffic engineers design a roadway project so that it has a lifespan of about 20 years. In 2002, the highway saw some relief when I-70 was widened to four lanes.
There are other ways of alleviating some of those gridlock headaches, Kiene said.
Ramp metering helps break up groups of vehicles, he said. It’s essentially a clock that allows a smaller amount of traffic onto the freeway at once.
Kiene said those metering devices, more commonly known to drivers as on-ramp traffic lights, are really helpful at keeping traffic levels balanced.
PROBLEM: Way too much traffic
SOLUTIONS: More lanes, more metering
EXPECTATION FACTOR: Books on tape
South Havana Street and East Mississippi Avenue
For commuters hitting South Havana Street and East Mississippi Avenue, it’s not uncommon for traffic to back-up after a fender-bender. Aurora police statistics show it’s among the top intersections in Aurora to experience a car crash.
But Auora Traffic Engineer Anna Bunce said that statistic isn’t necessarily an indicator of a traffic problem, and it hasn’t made her department’s shortlist of places that require immediate attention.
“Just like any arterial intersection is going to be congested a couple of times per day,” she said. “Volume overwhelms the capacity.”
That could be the source of all of those crashes, she said. When there is a big influx of traffic, like there is at many places across the region, there isn’t always an immediate fix.
“Are we always able to meet the demands at the time the demands materialize? No, nobody is,” Bunce said. “There is somewhat of a lag and that’s a resource challenge.”
BIG PROBLEM: Too many cars and too many crashes
SOLUTIONS: None apparent
EXPECTATION FACTOR: Ugly
Pecos and I-70
Two consecutive roundabouts may seem like madness and a little dizzying. But, CDOT traffic engineers say there is some method mixed in there.
The two roundabouts located at I-70 and Pecos Street work in tandem. Kiene said the two roundabouts replaced a five-leg stoplight intersection. The roundabouts help traffic keep moving. With traffic lights, there’s only so much that can be done, he said, likening traffic-light engineering to cutting a pie. To make one piece bigger — or in the case of stoplights, green lights longer — another piece has to be smaller.
There’s also an expectation of two roundabouts together when they’re placed at on and off-ramps, Kiene said. To have a roundabout and a traffic light next to each other would not be inefficient because it would allow a flood of cars into the roundabout, which typically slow traffic down.
Kiene said that while the maze of two-lane roundabouts may be a little confusing for drivers, they’re actually considered safer because drivers slow down and are forced to pay close attention to what they’re doing.
In other parts of the country, double roundabouts can be more common. They require a lot of space, Kiene said. But in this case, they worked out in that location.
PROBLEM: Numerous roads, arterials, exits and traffic patterns
SOLUTIONS: You’re looking at it
EXPECTATION FACTOR: Not for people who hate thrill rides
Sometimes referred to as Aurora’s main-main street, Interstate 225 has long been a source of traffic trouble. For those motorists who gnash their teeth near northbound I-225 between Iliff Avenue and Parker Road, or at the I-25 junction, take comfort in knowing that not long ago, this was a two-lane nightmare from one end to the other.
The trouble spots have now lessened. But there’s only so much traffic officials say they can do in a lot of problem spots, given the resources and amount of money available for projects. That funding has become a major contention at the state Legislature, where this year lawmakers passed a bill that puts hundreds of millions of dollars toward transportation projects. It could also lead to a ballot question to allow voters to decide whether the state can borrow $2.3 billion for infrastructure needs.
Colorado Department of Transportation Spokeswoman Tamara Rollison said often the demand far outweighs the agency’s capability when it comes to alleviating traffic.
An increasing population doesn’t help matters much.
“There ends up being many facets to this,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean CDOT isn’t doing something. The agency highlights a recent restriping project on southbound I-225 at South Tamarac Street that has, from what they can tell so far, been a major success.
Late last year, CDOT said they could reduce travel times down the highway in half by making some relatively minor lane changes. Rollison said so far, CDOT believes the change to be an improvement. A widening of I-225 was supposed to happen during the massive T-REX project that widened I-25, but the state ran out of money.
Instead of building an additional lane on I-225 — which could cost nearly $65 million — the restriping project cost just less than $1 million, and took substantially less time, according to CDOT. That pilot project could be a model for other areas, Rollison said. But so far, there haven’t been any other locations identified as ideal places for lane restriping.
Further north on southbound I-225, traffic can come to a screeching, and dangerous, halt as drivers approach the Parker Road off-ramp. It’s difficult to see over a small hill exactly how far cars are backed up. The problem there is a big body of water, said CDOT traffic engineer Ben Kiene.
There’s also a lot of people on the road. A lot of employment is to the west and a lot of homes are to the east. Cherry Creek Reservoir limits the number of available routes through that area. Dam Road can only absorb so much at a time, officials say.
There are some projects CDOT believes they can complete next year while they do some road resurfacing, but at its core, Kiene called that off-ramp area one of the metro area’s typical pinch points.
PROBLEMS: Too many cars with only one way to go,
and a giant reservoir soaking up space
SOLUTIONS: None apparent
EXPECTATION FACTOR: Really ugly
East First Avenue and University Boulevard
Whether it’s the after-work commute or a Saturday shopping trek, the roadways around Cherry Creek Shopping Center lend themselves to some post-commuter therapy.
Denver transportation officials say nearly 48,000 vehicles are rolling through East 1st Avenue and Steele Street each day. Many of those drivers deciding last minute what to do when they get to the intersection, which splits off giving drivers little time to figure out if they’ve chosen the correct lane.
The city has been looking at that particular intersection since 2014, said public works spokeswoman Heather Burke. They want to see what possible configuration changes can be made there to keep traffic moving from East First Avenue and University Boulevard. The stretch of roadway between those two points can be slow moving these days as the number of drivers increase and confusion ensues just passed the Cherry Creek mall.
Burke said the intersection was originally designed to keep travelers moving on a major arterial roadway. Now, the plan is to update the intersection to keep all people safe, including transit, pedestrians and people on bicycles, coming off the nearby Cherry Creek Trail. This year Denver will initiate a study to see what changes would best suit that trouble spot.
“While the intersection was designed to help vehicles and transit traffic flow efficiently, people walking and riding bikes are required to make multiple crossing movements in order to get from the northeast corner of the intersection to the Cherry Creek Shopping Center on the southwest corner,” Burke said.
“The study will evaluate options and move them toward preliminary design, so we can better serve all modes at the intersection and at surrounding intersections along First Avenue.”
The study will take about a year, according to Burke. And it will include public input. But no funding has been identified for a future project there yet.
PROBLEM: All kinds of lanes and cars going in all kinds of directions
SOLUTIONS: They’re working on it
EXPECTATION FACTOR: Uber and Amazon
South Peoria Street and Parker Road
The brake lights sometimes seem to barely blink at the intersection of South Peoria Street and Parker Road during rush-hour traffic. The stoplights can cycle two, three, sometimes four or more times before drivers get their shot at making it through the congestion and on to their destination.
The reason why, Bunce said, is because of a couple of factors.
First, Parker Road is the busiest arterial road in Aurora, and there aren’t a lot of efficient alternative ways around it. So the belt of the state highway, which stretches between Denver and Aurora farther out east, can be really crowded. According to city traffic officials, Parker Road handles 30 percent to 50 percent more traffic than any other major thoroughfare in the city.
“Dam Road can only absorb so much,” Bunce said, referring to the southbound lanes. “We’re over-capacity there.”
To make matters worse, that intersection is big, and a pedestrian could be crossing. By law, pedestrians must have a certain amount of time to cross. A bigger intersection means more time. That’s where things get drawn out.
The redevelopment of Regatta Plaza may bring some relief to that intersection. The city is seeking a TIGER Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to construct a pedestrian and bike bridge across Parker Road there. That would help move traffic along more efficiently by removing crosswalkers from the equation.
“We are optimistic (about getting the money) on that as we’ve demonstrated a clear need,” said Mac Callison, an Aurora transportation planner. “It has a strong cost-benefit ratio.”
The city expects to hear back on the grant soon.
BIG PROBLEM: Too many cars
SOLUTIONS: Reducing signal light interval
EXPECTATION FACTOR: Hold your breath
COVER ART BY SETH HATLAND, THE SENTINEL