U.S. 40 issues loom with or without Brown Ranch: ‘We can’t build our way out of that’

A traffic impact study produced for the Brown Ranch development has drawn attention in recent weeks after the Steamboat Springs Public Works director expressed concern over its findings.

In an interview last week, Public Works Director Jon Snyder said, “one of my big hang-ups from the get-go is, in general, the traffic study predicts 30,000 trips from Brown Ranch when (the project) is fully built out.”

According to Snyder, there are 20,000 to 30,000 trips feeding through the 13th Street intersection today in downtown Steamboat, so he felt the estimate is “reasonable” and based on a “logical process.” But his “hang-up” with the traffic impact study for Brown Ranch comes from the proportion of those estimated trips — referring to all modes of transportation: driving, walking, taking public transit or riding a bike — that would affect traffic on U.S. Highway 40.

“They were predicting close to a 50% trip reduction in the amount of trips generated in the development versus the amount of trips that would hit U.S. 40, and while I can’t say that it is wrong, I am also not sure I can buy it,” said Snyder.

“I don’t know that even the city of Boulder can claim a 50% trip reduction, and if they can’t do it in Boulder, I have no reason to believe that it’s going to happen in a remote area like ours where it is winter five months of the year,” he added.

The Yampa Valley Housing Authority paid $50,000 to Eagle-based McDowell Engineering LLC for the study to be completed. The firm performed traffic counts for U.S. 40 on April 8 and 11, but city staff asked the company to implement a “seasonal adjustment factor” to estimate the vehicle flow for the month of July which, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, is the busiest month of the year for the section of the state highway.

Since then, Snyder said city staff have requested the traffic consultants “take another crack” at their assumptions, “and then they are going to send those to city staff for (us) to review.”

“So, the traffic study that we have before us today, I suspect, will look quite a bit different in a few weeks because we are going to change a lot of the assumptions going into this,” he added.

With or without the project moving forward, improvements to U.S. 40, specifically for traffic originating west of the city between 13th Street and Routt County Road 42, will need to be made incrementally, according to Snyder, and would cost the city roughly $60 million in today’s dollars to be completed.

“We would probably be looking at wide-scale improvements sometime between 2036 and 2040,” Snyder said. “That is an educated guess on my part in all honesty. We could certainly see failing levels of congestion before then, but it is rare that you are going to be able to fund a project before you see that failing level of congestion just simply due to the limiting state funding.”

Whatever the conclusions of the study, the implications of the work extend beyond the Brown Ranch development, which if completed would see more than 2,000 affordable housing units constructed on the 534-acre property over the course of 20 years.

According to vehicle-traffic counts compiled by CDOT, traffic growth on U.S. 40 west of Steamboat rises about 1% each year.

Elise Thatcher, Region 3 communications manager for the state transportation agency, told the Steamboat Pilot & Today last week that traffic counts indicate the annual average daily traffic was 5,400 vehicles in 2022, according to a continuous counting station on the east side of Craig. That number was 5,000 in 2019.

Snyder, who lives in Hayden and has worked for the city since 2006, said he has seen a “slow and steady build” of traffic congestion over the past 17 years as a commuter, adding that the sudden jump in numbers since 2019 is likely due to the pandemic but is still “noticeably worse.”

Working as the city’s Public Works director, Snyder said his concerns center on if the expected highway improvements will be enough to solve the congestion issue and that they might even make the downtown traffic worse.

“As the Public Works director, one of the things that is hardest for me to swallow is once you hit 13th Street, there’s very little you can do,” Snyder said. “That’s where everything gets pinched down into basically U.S. 40. We have four lanes through there now and there is not a lot of room (or) good ways to increase capacity.”

“Let’s say we build out the $60 million worth of improvements, there’s still going to be a long cue of cars at 13th Street each morning because we can’t build our way out of that,” he added.

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