‘Days, not weeks’ for continued I-70 Glenwood Canyon closure
Western Slope representatives gather in Glenwood Springs to hear road updates and discuss Cottonwood Pass improvements
An interim traffic solution that will partially reopen Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon is “days, not weeks” away according to top officials with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
But a long-term solution that will provide a safe detour along Cottonwood Pass for commuters and local motorists is years, not months from happening, according to officials from Eagle and Garfield counties.
On Tuesday, a joint meeting between the county commissioners from Eagle and Garfield counties turned into a far-reaching confab when leaders from CDOT, state officials and representatives from other Western Slope communities gathered in Glenwood Springs to learn the latest news about the current I-70 closure and launch discussions about what to do the next time an extended closure hits Glenwood Canyon.
“You have all the right people in the room,” said CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew, who called into the session.
Lew delivered the welcome news that the current closure, which began back on July 29, will be partially lifted within days. “While the damage is severe, it is confined to certain spaces,” she noted.
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But the immediate Glenwood Canyon challenge is only part of the issue, Lew noted.
“There is longer term discussion about how we deal with resilience,” she said.
In the longer term, the commissioners from Eagle and Garfield counties agreed to work together toward Cottonwood Pass improvements. Those efforts will include lobbying for funding and completing whatever work can be done by local crews to make Cottonwood Pass a “safe, county road.” That level of improvement would not open Cottonwood Pass as a primary I-70 detour, the commissioners all agreed. But it would maintain the route for local residents who commute back and forth between the two valleys it bridges.
Mike Goolsby, CDOT transportation director for the 15 counties in the northwest part of the state, provided an update about the current conditions in the canyon. He noted the majority of the roadway debris has been cleared from 13 separate mudslides along that section of I-70. In some areas, the debris was 15 to 25 feet deep, he noted.
The most severe damage occurred at the eastbound lanes in the Blue Gulch area, at Mile Marker 123.5, where the roadway was destroyed.
“That is the area that is precluding us from opening the roadway,” Goolsby said.
CDOT does hope to open the canyon to one lane in each direction in the near future, Goolsby continued. “It is days, not weeks, but it is not definite,” he said. “But as luck would have it, you all know what is in the forecast for Thursday and Friday.”
“I think we are all going to start biting our nails every time a rainstorm is forecast,” agreed Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll. The extended canyon closures of the past month are just the latest example of why Cottonwood Pass is an important lifeline, Shroll said. But to function as an effective lifeline, Eagle County has outlined a series of six areas where improvements are needed. Those projects range from curve and sight line improvements to a $5 million project to widen the roadway at the Blue Hill/Narrows section.
All told, Shroll said the improvements will likely add up to $15 million. “I don’t think, we are going to, as two counties, come up with that money.”
The county officials agreed road improvements at that level will require state and federal partners and Lew said funding is on the way for both canyon repairs and long-term solutions.
On Tuesday, the Federal Highway Administration announced it would release $11.6 million, or 10% of the state’s total aid request, for canyon repair and relief. “Thanks to the fast and strong support of our federal delegation as well as the backing of Federal Highway Administration, CDOT can continue to work quickly with the assurance that resources will remain available,” Lew said in a written statement.
Impacts all around
During Tuesday’s session, various government representatives noted the impact from the I-70 closure isn’t just a local issue. Communities such as Meeker and Rifle are grappling with massive traffic increases as motorists traverse the recommended detour route and communities along the Western Slope are feeling supply chain pain.
“It (the I-70 closure) is hitting Mesa County hard,” said Mesa County Commissioner Cody Davis. “Is there any appetite to make the Cottonwood Pass route capable of accepting more commercial traffic?”
Noting that the impact the limited detour option currently operating along Cottonwood Pass has adversely affected neighborhoods, the Garfield County commissioners responded that there is not.
“I don’t see that happening,” responded Garfield County Commissioner John Martin. “It is not going to be a solution for a commercial route. It just won’t be.”
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky thanked Eagle County for its efforts to keep Cottonwood Pass open over the past couple of weeks. “Is a huge outlet for us when this happens and it is probably going to happen again,” he noted.
The entities all assembled agreed that in the future, they will work together to provide a better response to canyon closures along with their efforts to find longer term solutions.
“There are so many people who live in one county and work in another,” said Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry. “It feels good to be on the same page and working on a solution.”