Vail Daily editorial: No easy detours
February 23, 2016
Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon closes due to rockslides occasionally, but the slide that hit the canyon Feb. 15 was a whopper. Tons of rocks have come crashing down from a slide zone above the west end of the Hanging Lake tunnels, and it's still uncertain when all four lanes will reopen.
Whenever a slide closes the canyon, we see and hear many of the same things.
First, despite some well-known limitations, people continue to put more faith in their navigation technology than their eyes. There were stories from Aspen about cars lining up at the base of Independence Pass, which always closes between October and May. The driver of a semitrailer rig tried and failed to navigate West Brush Creek Road, which links the Eagle and Frying Pan river valleys.
Trust what's in front of you, folks.
The search for a shortcut is understandable. The best available detour around the canyon from the Vail Valley involves nearly 150 miles and several hours of driving. But that's the reality of travel in the high country. There simply aren't many ways to get from here to there when there are high mountains in the way, especially in the winter.
That, added to the fact that more commuters every year use Glenwood Canyon, occasionally brings calls for paving Cottonwood Pass between Gypsum and Glenwood Springs.
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At first blush, the idea sounds fairly simple. The road is there, after all. How hard could it be to pave the thing, run a few plows on it when needed and save countless motorists all those miles and hours when the canyon closes?
It's not that simple.
Not long after a big slide closed the canyon in 2010, the Eagle County commissioners took a brief look at the idea. Even six years ago, the cost was prohibitive, with an early estimate of millions simply to design a paved, two-lane road. That seven-figure design cost would then be multiplied by an eight-figure cost for the project.
That kind of money is simply unavailable, whether Eagle and Garfield counties would act alone or in concert with the state.
Back when the interstate highway system was being designed, the idea for I-70 was to end it in Denver, pushing interstate east-west traffic either north on Interstate 80 or south to Interstate 40. But the same generation that envisioned putting men on the moon believed we could run an interstate highway through the high Rockies.
During that initial design phase, some thought was given to routing the highway over Cottonwood Pass. The idea was rejected because of safety — three climbs to 10,000 feet or higher between Denver and Grand Junction — the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels, Vail Pass and Cottonwood Pass — would have been brutal for the cars and trucks of the 1960s. It would be a hard road with today's vehicles, too.
As difficult as the job was, Glenwood Canyon was the better choice, even with the prospect of rock slides.
Today, with interstate system built and little money available for alternatives, the unfortunate truth is we're pretty much out of options and have to live with decisions made decades ago.