Windblown: I-70 Nightmare is a Mirror of Project Futility
I sat atop Dercum Mountain at 11,640 feet above sea level, and faced the brutal winds as I strapped on my snowboard. My youngest son complained about the bitter blast, and I fished a spare balaclava from my pocket. Normally, he’d have worn his bandana as homage to Shaun White, but some poor soul was using it to stop his rather profuse bleeding after colliding with a tree at top speed on the Paymaster run a few minutes before.
Skiing next to my wife, who was slightly behind me, I heard the accident before I saw it. It was a short staccato symphony of plastic, metal and flesh all meeting a Lodgepole Pine at about 40 mph. I braked, popped my bindings, and ran back up the mountain. A 60-ish man had caught an edge and swerved violently into the glade. He sat stunned and bleeding by the tree, and my youngest son offered his bandana as we waited for the Ski Patrol. He’d been cut by his own goggles being smashed into his face, but was otherwise just dazed.
Such accidents are common on the ski runs. When my son disappeared in a cloud of white on the black diamond Go Devil run a few years ago, we took him to the clinic at the bottom of Keystone. I chatted with the nurse who said that, during the Christmas-to-New Year frenzy, they saw about 125 patients a day. Some are casualties of the high altitude of Colorado resorts; the summit of the Loveland ski area is 13,000 feet. Deaths at the resorts are relatively rare, statistically speaking, but outside the kindly influence of the resorts, so-called backcountry skiers have a high incidence of death by avalanche.
Still, the popularity of snow sports in Colorado grows with the population. The vast majority of skiers make their way up to Winter Park, Loveland, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, A-Basin, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Vail by braving the westbound I-70 traffic each Saturday morning. With hotel rates out-of-reach for many, coupled with a desire to get on the opening chair lifts at 8:30 a.m., cars of all flavors pack I-70 close to 6 a.m. for a frustratingly dangerous slalom through treacherous curves, slow-moving trucks and local crazies who feel indestructible in their 4X4 pickups and push 80 mph on roads that can be unsafe at 60.
The serpentine line of cars begins hitting the brakes every few seconds, as more and more cars infuse onto the roads from the entrance ramps, and soon it is a white-knuckle ride for 2.5 hours.
Of course, in the off hours, the drive sails along fast enough to bridge the distance between Golden and Dillon in an hour — but off hours demand such an early departure from Denver, that you end up sitting at the resort for an hour or more before the lifts open, or you arrive late to the hills at about 11 a.m. and the snow has been scraped to an icy sheen by the early skiers and riders. By 1 p.m., many snow sports enthusiasts have been tipping beers in the lodge and suffer from the twin demons of poor judgment and diminished coordination.
A six-figure study was commissioned by some folks in the Denver area to come up with the startling conclusion that no solution would be forthcoming anytime soon. The dream of a train from Denver to the anchor towns of Dillon and Frisco quickly disintegrated in the face of boring through granite mountains and laying track to the tune of billions of dollars and decades of work. Widening the roads by themselves presents similar issues; in many cases, the roadway is only a few dozen feet from either a mountain or sheer cliff — both nightmarish barriers to such whimsy. Even if the roads could be widened by a few lanes, unless they are widened all the way to Summit County, bottlenecks would reappear somewhere. And then there is the “build it and they will come” apprehension that any increased bandwidth in the roads would quickly entice previously frustrated skiers to saturate the roads to the extent we’d be back at square one within months.
So-called “zipper lanes” were another idea whose day will never come. This is the lower-tech approach of appropriating an extra westbound lane from the eastbound side of the highway in the morning, and reversing the process in the afternoon, all through the frenetic movement of concrete barriers. This plan met a quick death on the planning table when the highly-remunerated consultants pointed out that, while greasing the skids for traffic in one direction, I-70 is still a major commerce route from east-to-west, and traffic heading against the grain of the zipper lanes would grind to a halt.
Finally, after what must have been a long session in a dark bar, the Pace Car Plan (appropriately, PCP) was conceived, and even tried out. The theory was that we don’t have a traffic problem as much as we have a consistency of speed problem. Fast cars blazing past slower cars, then ruthlessly cutting in front of said slower cars with a few millimeters of clearance, causing them to hit the brakes in a hail of epithets, causes a spring-like oscillation of cars. PCP says that police cars, riding side-by-side at a constant 55 mph would even out the speed. All cars would reach their destinations at the same time, and unicorns and daisies could be spotted by the roadside in the ensuing calm.
Except that PCP doesn’t work (well, the drug might produce better ideas, but let’s not go there). The cars between the strategically-distributed phalanxes of squad cars would eventually revert to the oscillation, only now bounded by cops every few miles.
Planning any complex project carries uncertain risk/reward curves, but also the prospect that there just ain’t a good solution. I’ve seen this in far too many informatics projects over the years. Companies put big projects out to bid, consulting companies over-promise and under-deliver, expectations are dashed, lawyers are called, jobs are lost, and the bottom line is the project is done slowly, if at all. Still, the cycle continues.
And it always will, unless we come to the realization that the value of a solution is more important than the cost of it. It may not be the news high-level managers want to hear. However, just because a new product deadline is fast approaching, a budget is drying up, and an initiative has the visibility of a magnesium flare, it doesn’t mean that a project can be done in the parameters defined.
Well, enough of that, eh? I’m waxing my snowboard so that I can endure 2.5 hours of white knuckle stress for the pleasure of a day of fast runs.
Randy Hice is Director, Strategic Consulting at STARLIMS. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.