Vail Pass closures take work
VAIL PASS – As drivers hear the bad news – Vail Pass is closed in both directions – it might not be entirely obvious what’s being done behind the scenes to get the highway reopened as quickly and safely as possible.
Vail Pass closures are quite common each winter, and there’s a well-organized game plan in place for when it happens.
From the Vail Police Department to the Colorado Department of Transportation to the Colorado State Patrol to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, there’s a lot of work being done to make sure people stuck in Vail or elsewhere around the valley can get back on the highway and on to their final destinations.
Closures typically happen when spun out tractor trailer trucks block the roadway or there are several motor vehicle accidents on a snowy day, said Colorado State Patrol Captain Richard Duran.
By the time accidents are happening, though, there’s already work that’s been done to prepare for the closures as the agencies follow the county-wide Traffic Incident Management Plan.
“We start to get those winter storm warnings from the Weather Service and we start preparing, looking at our schedules. If we look short-staffed, we start calling people in to work,” Duran said. “We pull the weather reports up daily, sometimes hourly, to try to monitor our manpower, resources and our staffing.”
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger is typically doing the same thing. He said he needs to make sure there’s enough staff on duty to handle the closure, which typically means he needs officers directing traffic, closing on-ramp gates, putting traffic cones out and answering questions for motorists at the Ford Park bus turn-around.
The Vail Police Department also sends out the Eagle County Alert text messages and e-mails, changes the variable message signs and contacts local media outlets.
“We’re trying to communicate in every way we possibly can,” Henninger said.
The agencies are also communicating with each other, with the Department of Transportation or the State Patrol typically calling to say how long they expect the closure to last. If the closure looks like it will last a while, the agencies will get on a conference call to make sure they all know what they’re supposed to be doing.
“If it’s less than an hour, then we’ll delay people on the interstate, but we try not to do that,” Henninger said.
The first step is usually to close the on-ramp gates at main Vail. Tractor trailers are allowed to continue on to the chain-up area and park because there’s no where for them to go in Vail.
“That chain-up area gets full pretty quickly,” Duran said.
If the town of Vail starts getting inundated with traffic, the agencies go to a different stage of the closure which extends the closure down to Dowd Junction, then to Wolcott and also Dotsero, where there’s emergency truck parking, Duran said.
“We want to prevent tractors coming to Vail and clogging up the streets,” Duran said.
This is the second winter the emergency parking area in Dotsero has been open. There are about 80 parking spots available, as well as Frontage Road parking from Dotsero to Glenwood Canyon.
When the pass eventually reopens, that also happens in stages in an effort to minimize traffic.
While police officers are handling traffic and closures, the Colorado Department of Transportation is working constantly on the road conditions.
Mike Goolsby, CDOT’s maintenance deputy superintendent, said CDOT supervisors are in constant communication with the State Patrol.
Depending on the severity of the storm, CDOT may send plow trucks up from the Gypsum area to help out.
“The severity of the weather has to get pretty bad for us to not be out there plowing it,” Goolsby said.
CDOT has adjusted its strategies over the years, Goolsby said. About 15 years ago the rule was to keep roads open at all costs, but the department now sides with safety and takes a more proactive approach with road closures, he said.
CDOT will have anywhere from three to six plow trucks working just on the west side of Vail Pass, depending on shifts and the length and severity of the storm, he said.
The closure is an important time for the plow trucks since it provides an opportunity to clear the roads without posing any safety issues for passing cars.
“We take that opportunity to try to bring the road back to a passable condition,” Goolsby said. “When they have an opportunity to plow on a pass that’s closed, that’s a big opportunity for them.”
When the Pass does reopen, the plow trucks are still busy working. Goolsby said it’s important to give them some room when passing.
“We’re not up there trying to block traffic, we’re up there trying to make the roads safe for the traveling public,” Goolsby said.
The only time CDOT changes its snow removal operations is when avalanche danger warrants it, he said.
Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for CDOT, said the only closures that happen proactively instead of reactively are avalanche danger closures, and it’s hard to predict how long the closures will last, she said.
If avalanche mitigation work brings a lot of snow down on the roads, then there’s more snow removal work that needs to be done, thus longer closures.
“We post closures first thing in the morning. Check our website at cotrip.org if you have plans to travel,” she said.
When it’s impossible to get the roads reopened in a few hours, that’s when the Salvation Army and Vail Mountain Rescue step in to help.
Dan Smith, of Vail Mountain Rescue, said the Vail town hall, basement of the Vail Chapel and the Vail Chapel annex serve as shelters when travelers have to stay overnight. The shelters can hold about 150 people, and food and coffee is also served.
“We’re here to take care of human needs,” Smith said. “We get people out of the cold, someplace they can get a night’s sleep and we feed them.”
Smith said very few people willingly sleep in a room with 70 others, but if hotel rooms are all booked up, that’s the only option.
“People appear, in this situation, to act pretty egalitarian, which is pretty nice to see,” Smith said.