20 July 2009

Highways Are Impermanent

I am fond of saying that if civilization ever collapses, that the first piece of our massive archaeological legacy to fall into dysfunction will be Interstate 70, which crosses the Rocky Mountains through Colorado. Every year it is out of commission for a number of days due to landslides, avalanches and tractor-trailers that jackknife on its treacherous winding path.

Also, few interstate highways demand more of those who drive on it, or permit drivers to operate their vehicles so close to the limits of their abilities. Few activities other than skiing involve the high speed controlled falling that is the norm as your car makes its way down Floyd Hill, or hill you emerge on as you depart either the Eisenhower, or the Johnson tunnel. It is little wonder that I-70 is so accident prone. Necessity made the civil engineers who built the roads of Colorado a less conservative breed than those of Kansas and Nebraska (or maybe it was politics, but I doubt it).

When the problem shutting down the highway isn't in the mountains, it is usually in the high plains to the East of the mountains. In the winter, blizzards make I-70 impassable on many days when the mountain stretch is drivable, on other days, severe thunderstorms accompanied by hail and tornadoes make it inadvisable to drive that stretch. Earlier this year, the same tornado that damages one of our suburban malls also threw a tractor-trailer across I-70 (the driver, who was buckled in, experienced a vertical axis reversal when it was all over, but no serious injury).

But, today, we've learned that there are road blocking forces of nature to the West of the mountains as well. While I-70 is Western Colorado is largely free of landslides, avalanches, jackknifed tractor-trailers and blizzards, it can be shut down on a clear day, as it was today near Fruita, which is just a few miles from the Colorado-Utah border, by a highway jumping wildfire, this one currently spanning about 200 acres, about a third of a square mile.

I'd be curious to see just how many days a year some part of I-70 in Colorado is shut down. I'd guess that it was almost two weeks a year. And, shutting I-70 down is not a trivial matter. Even a brief failure is highly disruptive. There are only four ways to cross the Rockies via the Interstate. There are few good alternative ways to cross the Continental Divide once you get on I-70 in Utah. Much of the country on either side of Denver on I-70 is short on services. There isn't much between Fruita and I-15 but Moab, which is itself a mere village, best explored via bicycle. The side of the road in that country is good for star gazing and canyon climbing, but it is desolate, dry and hot. The national air travel system is bedeviled by bad weather with some frequency as well, but flying through the clouds is a rather more audacious enterprise than crawling across the pavement.

We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that highways are forever, a permanent investment like diamonds or an FDIC insured bank account. They are built out of inanimate objects that seem solid. But, they deteriorate over time just as surely as if the Earth fed on them. Highways must be nourished and cared for as surely as a garden. And, unlike a garden, we can't afford to leave them to go fallow every few years. Perhaps if we thought of our highways as a garden, we wouldn't be so shy about mending the system we put in place as the primary means of funding the gardeners, the gas tax.

1 comment:

Jude said...

I-70 seems particularly vulnerable in the area around Glenwood Springs because of rock slides and wrecks. I've been scanning my slides and putting them on Flickr. My dad worked on what he called the Straight Creek Tunnel, now Eisenhower/Johnson, and so far I found a few slides he took there: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jlcrook/sets/72157621653210741/
The approach to the tunnel was particularly difficult to construct; the road had to be relocated because of landslides.