‘Hats off’ to CDOT: I-70 reopening through Glenwood Canyon met with appreciation
Hundreds of thousands of combined man hours, millions in emergency federal funding and 16 days later, the diligent crews deployed by the Colorado Department of Transportation reopened Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon on Saturday morning.
“If I could do flips, I would,” Visit Colorado Director of Tourism Lisa Langer said.
Gov. Jared Polis said this past week that he wanted the roadway open by Saturday afternoon, but CDOT crews finished their work hours earlier than expected. Around 7:30 a.m. Saturday, the announcement was made that traffic would open to one lane, both ways.
CDOT officials said mitigation and reconstruction efforts would continue over the next three months, with the goal of being finished by Thanksgiving. The speed limit through Blue Gulch between Dotsero and Glenwood Canyon is now reduced to 35 mph until that work is completed.
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“Our team has worked tirelessly to get Glenwood Canyon on I-70 opened as soon as possible and we have made each minute count. I’m thrilled that we are delivering a few hours ahead of schedule. Every moment counts,” Polis said in a Saturday news release. “I want to thank (CDOT Executive Director) Shoshana Lew for her leadership on this effort as CDOT has worked day and night to safely clear a path. It has been an all-hands-on-deck effort to get the canyon reopened from the mudslides, which covered parts of the highway with 15 feet of rock and sludge.”
How the closures began
The stretch of I-70 between Dotsero and Glenwood Springs initially closed July 29, after unprecedented monsoonal rains showered between 2 to 4 inches in about an hour throughout Glenwood Canyon.
This caused substantial debris flows stemming from the Grizzly Creek burn scar to envelop sections of both eastbound and westbound lanes on I-70.
Not only did the July 29 rain cause major infrastructural damage, a surge of heavy mud, rock and loose earth initially trapped more than 100 motorists either in the Hanging Lake Tunnels area or in the nearby Bair Ranch exit. Everyone was eventually evacuated by CDOT crews, with the assistance of Colorado Highway Patrol.
Even more rain in the closing days of July brought torrential debris slides down through Blue Gulch, causing significant damage to the roadway and prolonging the closure.
Glenwood Springs’ tourism economy was hard hit as a result.
“We heard mostly from lodges that their reservations dropped by 50%. And then we heard from restaurants that were 25% to 30% down,” Langer said. “And then we started hearing about supply chain issues. Restaurants that expected an order to come in a week, now it’s going to be two weeks.”
Traffic issues ensued on alternate routes, like Cottonwood and Independence passes. Meanwhile, motorists were also told to circumvent the Glenwood Canyon closure by heading north through Steamboat Springs and Craig and eventually south to Rifle.
To help boost local business, Langer said Visit Glenwood started offering motorists who bucked up and consciously sacrificed a few more hours by taking the northern detour “cash for gas receipts.” Anyone who produced a receipt from their gas purchase was in exchange given $25 in Glenwood Gold, local currency that can be used at various locations throughout the community.
“We came back up to about 70% occupancy from where we had dropped to 50% over that first weekend,” Langer said. Yeah, we really, really did rally pretty well. Communication got out there pretty quick.”
Anticipating good news Saturday, Glenwood Caverns spokesperson Sarah O’Connor-Guffey said the canyon reopening offered local businesses a new hope.
“We are hopeful to see how the one-lane reopening in the canyon goes. It’s the perfect time for families to come see us for last-minute vacations right before the school year starts,” she said in an email Friday. “We’ve been seeing lower admission rates since the canyon was closed, so to be able to get as many guests to Glenwood Springs for a soak or a day full of fun at the park will not just benefit us, but the rest of our community too.”
Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said the closure had a trickle-down effect throughout the community in both relation to commerce and critical access for traffic.
“People have doctors on either side of the canyon, people commute to work on either side of the canyon,” he said. “We are more interrelated with our Vail Valley brethren than we probably have ever been economically in the history of Glenwood Springs.”
When Godes joined Rep. Lauren Boebert and Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky toured the canyon Wednesday, he said it was like CDOT “moved mountains.”
“The ripped-out tension cables. … Blue Gulch is like Blue Canyon now,” he said. “The redirected river that is really narrow and has some pretty interesting rapids and spots. … Those are all incredibly interesting, and I think they would be to anybody.”
More work to be done
Yet even as the road reopens to traffic, it’s still a long way before it will be back to normal in the canyon. CDOT Chief Engineer Stephen Harelson estimated in Aug. 8 letters sent to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, which include assessment surveys and requests for funding, that I-70 has so far sustained an estimated $116 million in infrastructural damages. Final estimations won’t be available until eight to 10 weeks from now.
Harelson stated that “at least 19 separate debris flow events” have been recorded in Glenwood Canyon between June 26 and Aug. 3. Meanwhile, flash flood warnings alone caused CDOT officials to close I-70 in Glenwood Canyon 12 times between June 26 and July 28.
In addition to mitigation and repair efforts on I-70, CDOT said alternate routes such as Cottonwood Pass will also likely require $50 million for improvements to withstand heavier traffic while also providing resiliency.
“We know that the longer-term repairs will take time and that, as we battle new challenges to our infrastructure with climate change, alternative routes for the I-70 corridor become more urgent,” Polis stated in Saturday’s news release. “Our administration is focused on the short, medium, and long term response and recovery from this incident.”
Harelson stated that in addition to the immediate roadway damage the debris flows have severely impacted the Colorado River.
“There are approximately five locations where debris flows have severely obstructed the river flow at this time,” he writes. “At several locations the debris deposited in the river has created river wide obstructions raising the river water level over the multi-use recreational path and threatening the eastbound I-70 retaining walls and multi-use recreational path with increased scour and damage.”
But on Saturday, the challenges to come felt a little lighter — and more so served as a reminder of CDOT’s hard work to reopen the road.
“I mean, they worked shifts like you can’t believe. I have a friend who works for CDOT — he was working 12 hour shifts,” Langer said. “They were working ’til they dropped, basically, and hats off to CDOT.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org