Wolcott bridge replacement stirs controversy
These days, the bridge, which links Colorado 131 to U.S. Highway 6, accommodates a much different type of traffic, ranging from the daily barrage of heavy trash trucks headed to the county landfill; to plentiful regular traffic from a fast-growing community.
The Colorado Department of Transportation and Eagle County officials say the bridge is unsafe for today’s traffic. Keith Powers, district engineer for the Department of Transportation, calls the bridge “functionally obsolete.” The transportation department – more familiarly known by its acronym, CDOT – has federal funding in hand to replace the structure and would like to proceed with that project next summer.
Neighboring residential and commercial property owners agree that the existing bridge is unsafe, but they’ve got concerns about the impacts a bigger bridge and faster-flowing traffic will have on their properties.
Several have written to CDOT and the county suggesting that it makes more sense to re-locate the Highway 131/Highway 6 intersection up-river where the Wolcott spur road comes off of I-70. CDOT officials estimate that such a change would raise the cost of the project from $1.6 million to a price somewhere in the $12 million to $15 million range.
Still, CDOT and county officials say some discussion of the issue is warranted. They plan to schedule a public meeting in January for a face-to-face discussion with Wolcott property owners.
“Certainly there’s lots of letters and concerns. People are asking why we were replacing that bridge at the current location rather than realigning Highway 131 and moving the bridge upstream. That is a valid question,” Owen Leonard, regional CDOT transportation director, told the Eagle County commissioners in a recent work session.
Jan Jouflas, owner and operator of the Wolcott Market and Wolcott Yacht Club, is among the local property owners who are concerned about the project. The bridge funnels traffic off of Highway 131 onto Highway 6, directly in front of her businesses. Last summer, Jouflas persuaded 300 local residents to sign a petition opposing replacement of the present bridge and encouraging relocation of the crossing to the spur road site. Traffic congestion is an issue at that location, particularly during the Wolcott Yacht Club’s thriving summer season.
“That intersection is incredibly dangerous. By making that road more open, increasing the size of the bridge, and increasing the speed, I think we will see fatal accidents there,” says Jouflas. “That’s not the right place for a major intersection unless we want traffic lights and all of that.”
Jim and Sandra Roberts, who own property immediately adjacent to the bridge, share Jouflas’ concerns. The Roberts bought their home, which was once a turn-of-the-century hotel, in 1984, and have spent years remodeling and adding on to the 1906 structure. The bridge replacement and widening of Highway 131 will involve some encroachment on their property.
The Roberts have been sending letters to the county commissioners and CDOT, pointing out that the 1992 Wolcott Area Community Plan calls for realignment of Highway 131 so that it intersects with Highway 6 at the I-70 access road.
“It makes more sense to take Highway 131 from the top of the S-curves out to the spur road,” argues Sandra Roberts. She also raises questions about highway needs if a long-anticipated reservoir is eventually built north of Wolcott. The Roberts’ letter also calls for a public dialogue.
The historical bridge is an earth-fill structure featuring concrete arches. Although it is structurally “somewhat sound,” according to Powers, CDOT officials are concerned about the erosion impacts of high water on the bridge. Leonard says CDOT spends time and money monitoring the bridge and making repairs most years after high water.
He said his concern is the money to replace the bridge is available now. CDOT would like to start work next summer. Re-locating the bridge upstream and realigning Highway 131 would involve environmental clearance issues, and considerably more expense. The cost of new highway construction runs about $2.5 million per mile, Leonard told the commissioners, and realignment of 131 would involve one or two miles of new road. He added that the state’s economic slump has “decimated” the regional spending programs for the next 10 to 15 years, and voiced concern that a change in the project would involve a lengthy delay for any improvements.
“It’s not good public administration to let that bridge stay in place another 20 years while we find the funding to relocate Highway 131,” he said.
The county commissioners appeared sympathetic with CDOT’s dilemma.
“It comes down to the fact that we have an unsafe bridge. It’s too narrow, and a bad intersection,” said Commissioner Michael Gallagher. “We can do it today for $2 million, or keep it for 20 years and hope for more money.”
Commissioner Tom Stone urged CDOT to minimize impacts to current property owners.
“If I have to choose between (funding for) this and improvements to the spur road in Edwards, there is a much greater need in Edwards,” he said. Commissioner Arn Menconi, saying Highway 131 is a scenic highway, urged CDOT to pursue an attractive bridge design that will maintain the character of the area.
All agreed that a public input session was a necessity.
“Folks have concerns that we need to get back to them on,” said Leonard. The meeting date in January has not yet been set.
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.