Business Center

In Photos: CDOT Interns’ Excursion to the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel

By Niles Koenigsberg and Vivian Engen, Process Improvement Interns

September 20, 2018

EJMT group photo
On August 29, 2018, employees of the Office of Process Improvement (OPI) at the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) visited the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel (EJMT). Staff often refer to the EJMT as a “small city,” and we had the opportunity to tour the facilities, meet the staff, and experience what it takes to operate the tunnels. Millions of travelers cross through the tunnels every year, but hardly any stop to learn more about the lengthy curves they travel through. Pictured above (from left to right): Aaron Fischer, Shalice Reilly, Nathan Wiltsie, Vivian Engen, Niles Koenigsberg, Alex Blum, and Chavirat Burapadecha.
EJMT mountain view
EJMT sits at just over 11,000 feet and carries I-70 under the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. But, the elevation comes with some responsibility. Water touched by the tunnels (which includes run-off, waste, and snowmelt) flows down both sides of the Continental Divide. As a result, the water quality is highly regulated. In fact, water engineers from Coors Brewing Company visit the tunnels on a weekly basis to test the water quality, as the water from the tunnels flows directly into the supply which is used to brew beer. The large windows, pictured above, in the EJMT facilities provide stunning mountains views and a unique perspective on the elevation that the tunnels sit.
EJMT educational sign
This sign (pictured above) is posted at the facility to educate visitors about the tunnel logistics. What makes these tunnels so special? Before their construction, travelers could only cross into western Colorado by navigating Loveland Pass—a steep, narrow road with numerous hair-pin turns and few guardrails. This made Colorado feel disconnected, almost like two separate states. However, Colorado’s 26th and 34th Governor, Edwin C. Johnson, recognized this problem and lobbied for an interstate highway to be built across Colorado. His vision took years to build: The Eisenhower tunnel (westbound), opened on March 8th, 1973, was named after our 34th President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, while the second tunnel (eastbound), opened on December 21st, 1979, was named after Governor Johnson. At the time of their dedication, they were the highest vehicular tunnels in the world (11,158 feet above sea level) and are still the highest in the United States.
EJMT door and generator
The facilities, both on the east and west sides, have two floors to house all of the ventilation equipment and power sources for the cumulative 3.4 tunnel miles. To keep the enormous systems running in case of power outages, the facilities have back-up power generators for each tunnel (pictured above). These 50 year-old behemoths generate enough power for one row of lights in the tunnels and, because power outages are not all too common, they are tested monthly. At times, equipment must be replaced or fixed, which may require large vehicles. On the second floor, the doorways (pictured above) are large enough to maneuver those required vehicles around to replace fans, motors, and other pieces of large equipment. During the winter the entire door is often closed to conserve heat, but employees can still access the areas through the smaller blue door.
EJMT fans
The ventilation system is one of the most spectacular features in the tunnels. Large fans (pictured above) control air quality inside the tunnels. Constant ventilation in the north tunnel pushes exhaust from one end to the other to keep air quality within a healthy range. On the south side, the fans are not used on a consistent basis, as the cars and the rotation of the planet work simultaneously with gravity to pull air through the tunnel, allowing ventilation to occur naturally. Each fan has multiple motors that, when working together, can reach up to 600 horsepower, enough force to blow over a 300-pound person (which has happened on multiple occasions).
EJMT control center
The Control Center, which sits at the top of the east facility, keeps a watchful eye on everything going on inside and around the tunnels. With hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable, employees can watch the roads from 120 different cameras, update message boards on the interstate, change speed limits, adjust the lights inside and outside the tunnels, and contain situations within the tunnels. The control center coordinates the efforts of the emergency response teams as well as the logistics of just about any situation surrounding the tunnels. With eyes and ears everywhere, travelers can rest easy knowing that their safety is always ensured.
EJMT emergency vehicles
From fires, to crashes, to vehicles running out of gas, EJMT staff are ready to respond with a fleet of emergency vehicles to address daily crises. The “Wrecker” (pictured above on the left) is a truck with enough power to push or pull any stalled vehicle (semi-trucks included) out of the tunnel. There is also a firetruck on call in the east center garage with roughly 500 gallons of water ready to extinguish tunnel fires. Above on the right, CDOT intern, Chavirat Burapadecha, tests out the firetruck’s siren.
EJMT highway crossing
One of the rare features at EJMT are the traffic signals that sit at each tunnel entrance. This is just one of only two locations in the country where a traffic signal is located on an interstate. The tunnel requires this unique capability to immediately stop the flow of traffic in the case of an emergency inside the tunnel. Traffic is also stopped to test the signals occasionally, or to allow a group of interns to experience the thrill of walking across the interstate.