CDOT chief: Cottonwood Pass not a priority |

CDOT chief: Cottonwood Pass not a priority

Construction crews continue to fill and repatch holes in the east and westbound decks of I-70 through the Glenwood Canyon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent |

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Any state participation in improving Cottonwood Pass to serve as an alternate route whenever Interstate 70 is closed through rockfall-prone Glenwood Canyon would entail a lengthy cost-benefit analysis and is not a near-term solution, Colorado’s chief transportation official said Wednesday in Glenwood Springs.

“It is something we’ll take a look at,” Shailen Bhatt, executive director for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said during a visit to update local officials and members of the media regarding repair work in the canyon after the latest rockslide last month closed I-70 through the canyon for close to a week.

Some $5 million in repairs should be completed by the first week of May, when transportation department expects to reopen the interstate to four full lanes of traffic, Bhatt said. Currently, traffic is limited to one lane in each direction through the work zone.

“We are moving forward aggressively in dealing with this,” he said, adding, “the question now turns to what are some of the options” to prevent or mitigate for lengthy closures in the future.

“The environmental constraints on Cottonwood Pass are pretty significant.” Steve OlsonColorado Department of Transportation engineer

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Improving Cottonwood Pass may be one of those options, but is also probably a long shot when it comes to state involvement, Bhatt said.

“I want to be clear that this is not something we have any plans to move forward on anytime soon,” he said. “To build a road, you have to have environmental clearance and you have to have a budget.

“We don’t have clearance and we don’t have a budget,” Bhatt said.

The nearly weeklong closure of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon following a Feb. 15 rockslide that resulted in long detours via two-lane highways to the north or south of Glenwood Canyon prompted renewed suggestions by some residents and local elected officials to improve the seasonal road over Cottonwood Pass between Garfield and Eagle counties.

CDOT Region 3 Program Engineer Steve Olson said the agency plans to schedule a meeting with officials from those two counties, as well as neighboring Pitkin County, to discuss that and other options in the event of future I-70 closures.

“The environmental constraints on Cottonwood Pass are pretty significant,” he said. “But it is something we can evaluate.”

Local governments could side-step that process by paving Cottonwood Pass on their own and at least make it passable for passenger cars year-round, Glenwood Springs Mayor Michael Gamba said.

“If it were improved locally by the two counties, and I’m not saying we want to circumvent (National Environmental Policy Act), but the issue could be short-circuited,” Gamba said, adding the federally required review for such projects under the National Environmental Policy Act will increase the costs and take a lot of time.

On the other hand, “it is a vital connection that’s more of a national concern,” Gamba said.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, speaking at a follow-up meeting with Bhatt and attended by several other city, county and local business leaders, agreed.

“There is some interest on our part in improving Cottonwood Pass just as a paved county road, not necessarily a state highway,” Jankovsky said. “If you are going to be putting hundreds of millions of dollars into a rockfall shed, I would like to see Cottonwood Pass become a relief valve so that commerce can get back and forth.”

The transportation department has asked engineers to study a rockfall shed, or tunnel, over one section of I-70 in Glenwood Canyon that has been prone to rockslides, which would protect the road deck from damage from future slides, Bhatt said.

But even that solution has engineering a cost challenges, and one rock shed isn’t going to do the trick if a slide happens in another location, he said.

The protective shed would be in the vicinity of mile marker 125, where a major slide occurred in March 2010, resulting in another multi-day closure. But last month’s slide came down in another location about a mile to the west, and admittedly caught the transportation department off guard, Bhatt said.

Attention now turns to doing everything that can be done prevent and protect against future rockfall incidents in the canyon, he said.

“This is a function of having an interstate highway running through a canyon,” Bhatt said. “It’s not our first rockslide and will not be our last rockslide to have to deal with.”

The $5 million repair cost also includes some repair work along part of the detour route that was in place during the I-70 closure, on state Highway 13 between Rifle and Craig, and Highway 131 from Wolcott to Steamboat Springs.

Snowstorms during the detour period resulted in semi trucks needing to pull to the side of the road to chain up, which caused damage to the pavement and shoulders, CDOT Region 3 Director Dave Eller said.

Damage also occurred on the section of the bike path in Glenwood Canyon between the Shoshone and Hanging Lake rest areas. Those repairs are also expected to be completed by early May. The path is now open from Glenwood Springs to Shoshone.

The state is also asking for additional federal financial assistance to pay for the repair work in full, Bhatt said. Already, $1 million in federal emergency funds have been approved.

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