CDOT Pushes for Sprinklers in Eisenhower Tunnel

December 27, 2011

Transportation officials in Colorado want to install a $20 million sprinkler system in the Eisenhower Tunnel to mitigate risk of a fire.

The four-lane Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel on Interstate 70 is among the busiest corridors across the Continental Divide and is one of the highest highway tunnels in the world. The Summit Daily News reports that the Colorado Department of Transportation seeks a water-mist system to control heat from a possible fire so that fire fighters could get inside.

CDOT is looking to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help pay for the suppression system. Sen. Mark Udall told the newspaper that he believes there is “significant national interest” in making the tunnels safer.

“Interstate 70 is a major east-west corridor, and we need a fire-suppression system to protect lives and the tunnel itself,” Udall said. “I’ve been working with the homeland security and transportation subcommittees to explain the urgency of making this investment.”

Though some 300 million vehicles have passed through the tunnel, there has never been a fatality inside. But if the tunnel were to be significantly damaged by fire, transportation officials say, a closure could be “devastating” to the Colorado economy.

Firefighters say both the location and structure of the tunnel make it particularly susceptible to fire.

“If it were in the tunnel, a fire could be devastating because it could (create) so much smoke and consume so much oxygen that it could be really hard to handle,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue spokesman Steve Lipsher said.

CDOT Region 1 Director Tony DeVito told the newspaper that the water mist system would not push smoke down toward the ground where firefighters and victims will find clean air. It also would work well with the existing infrastructure at the tunnel.

“It just lends itself to being the most feasible,” DeVito said of the sprinkler proposal.

There have been several fires inside the tunnel. The worst was in 1986 when a 20-passenger bus caught on fire. The driver pulled up against the curb, but couldn’t get the doors open, tunnel superintendent Mike Salamon said. No one died, but 16 people were taken to the hospital.

CDOT officials hope to see another round of federal funding allocation in the spring, which may give the transportation department a shot at getting some money.

“We’re going to continue to pursue all avenues of grant funding through different federal programs,” DeVito said.

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