Local officials are working on upgrades to a bustling Ute Pass intersection so that it can better handle an influx of traffic that's expected on Pikes Peak Highway now that the Cog Railway has closed.
Traffic has long been a problem at the turnoff for the highway at U.S. 24 and Fountain Avenue. With officials anticipating roughly 150,000 more people on the road to the summit annually now that the Cog is out of commission for the foreseeable future, concerns about congestion are mounting.
"As soon as I heard the Cog Railway was closing, I realized we were going to have a huge traffic issue," said El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf, who said he's heard from worried residents in mountain communities such as Cascade and Green Mountain Falls.
A new shuttle service, mandated for nearly all Pikes Peak visitors to help ease the congestion, is expected to begin carting people to the summit on Monday. But those headed up the mountain will still have to take Fountain Avenue from U.S. 24 and onto the highway to drive to one of two lots where they can catch a shuttle. Construction on the $50 million new Summit House, expected to begin in July, will add to that throughout.
Even before the Cog closure, traffic on westbound U.S. 24 was known to back up from the Fountain Avenue turnoff to the Cave of the Winds exit - a distance of about 4 miles - during the busy summer tourism season, VanderWerf said.
Vehicles on westbound U.S. 24 often fill the left turn lane to Fountain Avenue and overflow into the left lane, VanderWerf said. Drivers sometimes nearly miss the turnoff, stopping in the right lane just before the intersection to cross over into the turn lane - which can clog up the entire westbound side of the highway.
The intersection not only creates a traffic headache for visitors and residents heading west to the mountains, but also for locals headed to Colorado Springs.
Drivers leaving Pikes Peak on Fountain Avenue often fail to get onto a merge lane just before the intersection that will take them onto eastbound U.S. 24 and instead continue to the crossing to turn right at the traffic light. It only takes a few cars awaiting a green light to block the entrance to the merge lane, known as Ute Pass Avenue, which locals know to take but tourists do not, VanderWerf said.
Design plans are still in the works, but the county is considering adding another lane to southbound Fountain Avenue - stretching from the ramp back to the bridge over Fountain Creek - that would lead to the merge lane, creating another entrance to the merge lane in the case that cars back up to turn right at the light.
The county might also add medians, signage and striping that would better direct traffic so that tourists leaving Pikes Peak Highway area aware of the on-ramp, said county spokesman Matt Steiner.
Colorado Springs has contracted out the design work, and county crews will likely complete the construction by the end of the year, Steiner said. Officials don't know how much the upgrades will cost, although money to pay for them could come from a county revenue surplus. Voters approved a ballot measure in November that would allow the county to spend up to $6 million in excess revenue on several roadways in the county that need safety improvements, including the Fountain Avenue and U.S. 24 intersection.
The Colorado Department of Transportation is also considering extending the left turn lane on U.S. 24 farther back so that it can hold more cars, although the concept is still in the design phase, said CDOT spokeswoman Michelle Peulen.
"We are working with all of our partners in the area, including residents, to find solutions to congestion in the area," Peulen said.
CDOT is also planning several other projects along U.S. 24 that will help reduce traffic, including a rockfall mitigation effort and an extension of the eastbound left turn lane on U.S. 24 at 31st street, Peulen said. She noted that the projects are not due to the Cog closure.
Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108