At least twice a day, Colossal Cave Road transforms from a mostly calm, two-lane suburban road to a congested, traffic-clogged obstacle course of school zones, potholes and impatient drivers, bisected by two sets of railroad tracks.
It’s especially hectic in front of Old Vail Middle School and Acacia Elementary School, where the absence of turn lanes in each direction forces staff members and parents to sit and wait, delaying delay traffic behind them until they can turn in to either school’s parking lot.
The congestion gets worse if a train crosses one of the tracks, pushing traffic as far back as Interstate 10 to the south and Mary Ann Cleveland Way to the north.
“There are mornings where it is really nasty and others where it’s not quite as bad,” said Al Flores, facilities and transportation director for the Vail School District.
The worst traffic occurs during a 30- to 45-minute span in the morning when staffers and students arrive at school, just as other commuters are heading to work.
The congestion is also heavy in the afternoon when students are leaving school.
The congestion issues, along with hazards presented to students, crossing guards and vehicles in the area, prompted school district and county officials to pool money to widen Colossal Cave Road, with hopes of adding a center lane and possibly right-turn lanes for each school.
Last month, the county Board of Supervisors voted to shift $872,000 out of District 1’s road-repair fund to improve Colossal Cave Road, with most county officials viewing it as a high priority.
The decision was made after the Vail School District offered to contribute $100,000 to help fix the road.
The county currently has about $3.7 million for the project and is studying whether to make incremental improvements or repair the road all at once, said Priscilla Cornelio, director of the county Department of Transportation.
The county can cover the cost of incremental improvements, estimated at $2.4 million. That would widen and add turn lanes in the areas near the schools, make safety enhancements near the railroad tracks and improve side-street and driveway access within the area.
The more comprehensive package of improvements would widen a longer stretch of Colossal Cave Road while adding paved shoulders for bicycle access, pedestrian paths and sidewalks. But it comes with a price tag of $5 million, which is more than the county has.
County transportation officials are analyzing the feasibility of each option, Cornelio said.
They expect to complete their study in a couple of weeks, but there is no timeline for when work would begin on the narrow road that stretches through the heart of Vail.
Vail School District officials have been waiting for the road improvements for almost a decade, but the project was put on hold due to a lack of funding.
The district has made some enhancements on its own to help alleviate traffic problems at both campuses.
At Old Vail Middle School, the district has paid to expand the school’s parking lot and move the school bus drop-off area behind the school to make room for more traffic.
The district decided it couldn’t wait any longer on the road improvements, which prompted Flores and other officials to show up at a Board of Supervisors meeting last month and offer the $100,000.
“The district recently made the decision to assist with funding of the project because of the severity of the situation,” he said.
At the meeting, district staffers described cars running over and flattening school-zone signs, near misses between vehicles darting in and out of the parking lots, and crossing guards almost getting hit.
“It’s grown dramatically in the last six, seven years,” said Old Vail Principal Laurie Emery, who has worked at the school for nine years. “It used to be a rural area.”
Emery recalled her own stories of parents and motorists using the gravel area in front of her school to pass other cars or as a makeshift turn lane to enter the school parking lot.
She has also witnessed some collisions near the school.
The safety of the students is her biggest concern.
“We’re at a point where this is a critical issue,” she said.