While it is hard to predict what the specific transportation needs for this area will be in 30 years, the focus for Steamboat Springs and Routt County should be on improving our surrounding highway infrastructure to handle an anticipated increase in commuters and visitors.
Hopefully, that's a message the Northwest Regional Planning Commission will hear when it hosts a public meeting today to gather input on this area's future transportation needs. The NWRPC is developing a transportation plan for the five-county region that includes Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties. The plan will be incorporated into a statewide transportation plan, which is slated to be completed in mid-2005 and is designed to meet needs through 2030.
According to NWRPC's analysis, Routt County's population is expected to increase 73 percent to more than 34,000 residents in the next three decades. For some, that is an alarming number that evokes concerns about traffic congestion on Lincoln Avenue and prompts calls for creating an alternate route around Steamboat Springs. But as city and county officials noted Monday during a discussion of the Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan update, the benefits of such a bypass are outweighed by the costs and impracticality of such a route.
Instead of creating new roadways, our top priority should be upgrading those roads that connect Steamboat Springs with the rest of the state and nation -- U.S. Highway 40 and Colorado highways 131, 9 and 14 and Routt County Road 129.
Given Steamboat Springs' housing costs and shrinking developable space, the majority of the population growth Routt County experiences in the future likely will be commuters who live in communities such as Hayden, Clark, Stagecoach and Oak Creek and work in Steamboat. It is important to anticipate the infrastructure necessary to provide those commuters with a safe, noncongested drive to and from work.
Also, it is critical to Steamboat's tourism-based economy to improve the area's accessibility by car. That means good connections to interstates 70 and 25.
Shoulders need to be added and improved along Elk River Road and Colorado Highway 131. U.S. Highway 40 should be considered for expansion to four lanes wherever practical between Craig and Kremmling. Similar improvements on Colorado Highway 9 from Kremmling to Silverthorne also are key.
While there certainly is more traffic in Steamboat Springs and Routt County than there was a decade ago, congestion remains relatively minor. Even during peak traffic, travel time from one side of Steamboat to the other remains a matter of minutes, and there already is infrastructure in place -- the multimodal Transit Center, for example -- to assist with future congestion.
More important to our community and our economy is finding ways to make it safer and easier for workers, tourists and locals to get to and from Steamboat. The NWRPC's plan should reflect that.