Gypsum residents skeptical of ideas to improve the Cottonwood Pass road
Some worry that improved road would create more problems
While Cottonwood Pass has long been seen as an alternative when Interstate 70 closes in Glenwood Canyon, neighbors are unsure how improving the rural road might help.
The Colorado Department of Transportation hosted an open house Thursday at Gypsum Town Hall. The open house didn’t have any presentations, but residents instead took hard looks at potential options to improve the road in several spots.
Among those taking hard, skeptical looks were residents who live along the route leading to the pass.
Kenny Slaughter joked that what’s needed is a rickety toll booth like the one in the movie, “Blazing Saddles.”
More seriously, Slaughter said improvements on the pass road that links Eagle and Garfield counties would “compound” safety and other issues.
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Eagle resident Bill Heicher is a retired state wildlife officer. Among other questions, Heicher wondered about how more traffic — often with speeding vehicles — might affect wildlife in the area.
“I think they’re creating another problem,” Heicher said.
Time for a toll booth?
Kenny Slaughter’s mother, Laurie, was also at the open house. The Slaughters for multiple generations have lived at the base of Cottonwood Pass Road. She noted that the pass for years had been seen as a bit of a “locals’ secret” for getting between Gypsum and Glenwood Springs.
But with the advent of phone navigation systems and prolonged canyon closures in 2020 and 2021, the road is “not a secret anymore,” she said.
Mike Weber also lives near the base of the road. He noted that original plans for I-70 envisioned either going over Cottonwood Pass or going through Glenwood Canyon.
Weber called those early options a choice between “two evils,” running an interstate highway either through a “beautiful forest or a beautiful canyon.”
A few of the display boards detailed options for improving the road through Blue Hill, a particularly narrow, steep section of the road.
When multiple mudslides in 2021 closed the canyon several times, including an extended closure in late July into August, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and the Eagle County Road and Bridge Department stationed people on either end of the Blue Hill stretch, allowing one-way traffic to traverse the section without worrying about oncoming traffic.
It’s going to be expensive
Cost estimates for just the Blue Hill section ranged from $50 million to more than $350 million. Other sections had similar cost estimate ranges. No funding sources have been identified for any of the potential work.
Weber noted that Cottonwood Pass would remain a seasonal road even with millions in improvements. The best option, in his view, is to take a big portion of the envisioned costs and put the money into improving safety in the canyon.
“What could you do in Glenwood Canyon for $350 million?” Weber asked.
Another lifelong resident, Ezra Velez said he worries about added traffic and the potential for possible accidents with the many local youths who use the road for fun.
“I don’t want (to see) the headline: ‘Four kids killed in a crash,’” Velez said.
Gypsum Town Council Member Scott Green also lives near the base of the road. Green said if the road is going to be improved, the scope of the project needs to expand.
Noting that traffic throughout town is snarled when motorists either go looking for the westbound road, or when eastbound traffic comes down, Green said any project needs to be extended “all the way to I-70.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation has a web page describing the Cottonwood Pass concept design process. Go to CODOT.gov/projects/cottonwood-pass-concept-design
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