Interstate 70 is an example of large projects we no longer build
We don’t build great public works projects any more. It’s sad. More than too bad, really.
I wish we still did.
I got to thinking about it on the Interstate 70 drive back to Grand Junction for the holidays. Even though this patch of federal interstate highway is anything but just another road, when you drive it a lot, it sort of becomes, well, just another road.
You know what I mean. A blur. A means to a destination. Four hours of twists and turns, punctuated with the same gas station or two you always stop at, all a necessary part of making your way to that family dinner, a business meeting or a game.
But when you drive it less, you start to notice things once again — as in, what an amazing accomplishment the whole stretch is. At least I did.
Without the benefit of numbing over-repetition, that 78-mile-per-hour blur regains a little deserved focus, and what comes into view is a road that is far from just another road. It’s a remarkable human feat draped in the full majesty of Colorado.
I-70 between Denver and Grand Junction is like a monument to human diligence, dating to a time when Americans used to build great things, do great big things.
First, the Eisenhower and Johnson Tunnels — two bores, each a little more than a mile and a half. Not that long, right? Right, except that the tunnels were bored through the twisted earth of a continental collision zone. There’s nearly 200,000 cubic feet of concrete shielding the arterial from the crushing weight of the Continental Divide overhead. Now that’s a project.
When engineers started excavating the tunnel 45 years ago this March, they didn’t realize they were building through a fault zone. Until they hit a fault. An engineer on the project famously quipped at the time: “We were going by the book, but the damn mountain couldn’t read.” A number of workers actually lost their lives in the process of digging it all out.
That mile-plus tunnel, as taken for granted as it has become, was and remains a grand accomplishment. It’s also an indispensable part of Colorado, our system of commerce and our recreational culture.
And still you have to wonder: If we didn’t build it then, would we have the will and the collective political wherewithal to build it now? I’d like to think so, but I wonder.
As you come down the back side of Eisenhower, after you zoom by Silverthorne and the outlets, there you see Dillon Reservoir — itself a great engineering accomplishment that serves a very practical daily purpose. It is an important source of drinking water to Denver Water and its thirsty customers. From a quaint little naturally occurring pool along the banks of the Blue River, engineers in the 1960s built the hulking, visually spectacular water source and recreation venue that we now see.
Their means: a whopper of a dam, nearly 6,000 feet long and 230 feet wide that backs up the Blue.
The Roberts Tunnel, no small task in its own right, cuts through Colorado’s high country and delivers water from the reservoir.
When it was built, Dillon Reservoir was no small inconvenience to folks living in the area. The original township was totally displaced — an entire town relocated by the project.
Will there be a project like Dillon Reservoir ever constructed again? It has become standard fare, even among those who would like to see more water projects built, to say that the answer to that question is no.
From Dillon, it’s a little more than an hour to Glenwood Canyon — and a 12-mile stretch of highway that’s as spectacular as any on the planet.
Carefully designed to preserve the natural beauty of canyon country that’s got more than its share of natural beauty, the highway — and all of its bridges and tunnels and sweeping turns — is an engineering marvel for the ages. Engineering students study it. TV documentaries have been made about it.
It is a Colorado crown jewel, and yet, if it weren’t built then, it’s frankly hard to imagine that the maze of decision makers who decide the fate of projects like it in this day and age would ever allow something of its scale to happen now.
There was a time when we built great things. The remnants of that time are everywhere. It is a shame we don’t do it any longer.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.