Harry from Commerce City writes, “What’s driving you crazy? Will semi trucks hauling hazardous materials be able to use the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels now that the new fire suppression system is working?”
You are one of several hundred truckers hauling hazardous materials each day who are forced to divert away from the easier and quicker and less windy I-70 route through the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels and use the steep and very curvy two lane highway US 6, Loveland Pass. There are a few crashes of hazardous materials trucks every year on either side of Loveland Pass, sometimes with results that are awful for the driver and terrible for the environment. Having driven Loveland Pass many times in good weather and bad, I can understand why you would rather stay on I-70.
The fire suppression system inside each side of the I-70 tunnels was recently refurbished and is now fully operational. Historically, there are two to three vehicle fires each year in one of the tunnels since they opened in the 1970s. While CDOT has its own firefighting capability, the fixed fire suppression system gives first responders the critical time needed to safely approach the scene and take action. CDOT says the suppression system is, “a necessary tool in combating tunnel fires, keeping the public safe, protecting the tunnel structure and minimizing disruptions to traffic”.
While the fire suppression system is improved, CDOT says it is still not designed to handle the fire from a large tanker hauling gasoline. Even though in a December, 2011 report with recommendations regarding short term mobility solutions along the I-70 mountain corridor stated, “A fire suppression system could allow for a policy change for hazmat trucks to free flow through the tunnels thus preventing regular traffic from being stopped and throughput would be increased. The fire suppression system would help with rapid fire incident response in tunnel reducing the risk of catastrophic fire incidents. If Hazardous materials were allowed through the tunnels, CDOT could shift resources from Loveland Pass to I-70 at the EJMT for cost effectiveness and efficiency.”
Even so, The Colorado State Patrol is responsible for routing hazardous material vehicles and has determined that hazardous material trucks should still be diverted on US 6 over Loveland Pass. There are few, if any, tunnels in the world that permit unrestricted access to haul hazardous cargo through them. As you know Harry, all hazardous materials loads are required to use US Highway 6 over Loveland Pass. When the pass is closed because the weather is bad or the avalanche risk is too high, all traffic on I-70 is stopped at the top of each hour to allow the hazardous cargo trucks to move through the tunnels slowly and safely and all by themselves.
With over 30,000 vehicles using the tunnels every day, the multi-agency decision to keep the I-70 tunnels hazardous materials restriction in place was made based on how disruptive a long-term closure of the tunnels would be to the Colorado and western United States economy if there happened to be a hazardous materials fire inside one of them. CDOT’s Executive Director Tim Lewis says while this is not ideal for some truckers, there is room for discussions in the future, “It is a weak link in the chain for the I-70 corridor and it is something that CDOT and the trucking industry in Colorado has to wrestle with. It definitely impacts the flow of fuel across the continental divide.”
Even though the fire suppression system is not going to handle hazardous loads, it is quite impressive. Some of the key characteristics include, the capability of suppressing a large fire in the first two minutes of the event. The system is designed not to put out the fire but keep it cool enough for firefighters to get close enough to extinguish it. The system is capable of providing water for 60 minutes with two deluge sprinkler zones as well as 500 gallons per minute at an altitude of 11,000 feet above sea level. A drainage system that can keep the tunnel from flooding, and a fiber optic linear heat detection system that can “see” a fire as it starts. In all, the new system cost about $25 million paid for with federal and state funds.
Bottom line, my gut tells me the risk of a long term closure of the tunnels is just too great for the powers that be to allow any change in the way things operate right now.
Denver7 traffic anchor Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 20 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, YouTube or Podbean.