DENVER (CBS4) – It’s one of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s biggest concerns in the high county, and now a bipartisan effort is bringing millions for a new fire sprinkler system in the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels.

CBS4’s Jeff Todd got a tour of the tunnels Monday and found out significant money could help during dangerous situations.

It’s something CDOT wanted to get going, but last year the state didn’t have any money, and when they turned to the federal government, they were left empty handed. But after a bipartisan bill in the last session, $5 million is what workers are calling a jumpstart on the sprinkler project in the tunnels.

“The safety of the facility has always been paramount for us,” Mike Salamon with CDOT said.

With the nearest fire department at least 20 minutes away, the CDOT fire brigade has seen its fair share of work over the years from cars overheating as they approach 11,000 feet in elevation.

“We see on the range of two to three automobile fires a year. We’ve had some very, very close calls over the last 40 years,” Salamon said.

An example is an RV that caught fire in 2000. An observant crew member in the control room at the tunnel stopped traffic, likely saving lives.

Heat and smoke are the two biggest dangers inside the tunnel.

“It’s really just a great big chimney and depending on the intensity of the fire, it could become more and more dangerous,” Salamon said.

CDOT estimates a massive fire inside the tunnel could cause up to $2 billion in damage. Not to mention a closure would cripple communities to the west that rely on tourism and recreation. That’s why tunnel personnel have been calling for a sprinkler system to get installed.

“It’s at least going to buy us some time to either get in and do a rescue or perhaps go in and snuff the fire out with our own equipment,” Salamon said.

But the total project right now is billed at $25 million.

“I think this $5 million is a great importance to move forward and if I heard the governor right this weekend, we will find a way to get the rest of this money,” Salamon said.

CDOT has some money that the tunnel would need to compete with other projects around the state. But with the $5 million going toward finishing the design and starting construction, some CDOT employees feel they have time to get the rest of the money because it will take a few years before the project is finished.


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