Afternoon gridlock hits Glenwood Springs as Grand Avenue bridge detour begins
A day that began with relative smooth sailing through the Grand Avenue bridge detour during the upvalley morning commute ended in drivers’ and project officials’ worst nightmare as the backlog of homeward-bound traffic extended well into the evening.
By 8 p.m. Monday, traffic was still bumper-to-bumper on northbound Grand headed through the designated Colorado 82 detour route to Eighth Street and north Midland Avenue to Interstate 70 Exit 114.
Causing the most consternation for Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson and members of the bridge project team were the numbers of motorists diverting from the detour route onto 27th Street and the middle section of Midland.
Officials have been warning motorists in the weeks leading up to the 95-day detour to demolish the old bridge and complete its replacement to not try to skirt the designated through route. But Wilson said he counted 236 vehicles between 7 and 7:30 backed up from the traffic signal at Eighth and Midland all the way to the 27th Street roundabout.
Given the signal timing at Eighth and Midland allowing just six to eight vehicles through at a time, it made the off-piste trek about an hour and a half, Wilson said.
Detour traffic was also backed up south of Glenwood to about the Buffalo Valley intersection as the sun set, but was at least being allowed to flow freely, he said.
“What we saw today was exactly what we said would happen when you take three lanes of traffic and trickle them down into one,” Wilson said. “That hit us really hard at about 3:30 p.m.”
The main message going into Day 2 of the detour is for motorists traveling through Glenwood Springs, whether it’s during the morning or afternoon rush hours, or in the middle of the day, to stay on the detour route, he said.
Graham Riddile, project engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation, agreed that Midland Avenue is not the best option, though at times motorists were being flagged through in effort to clear some of the traffic.
“We are seeing too many people going up Midland, and it’s a real difficult thing to crack down on. We want people to settle into a pattern of using the detour,” he said. “Keeping the detour traffic off of Midland protects those neighborhoods and lets those residents get to where they need to go.”
One Midland Avenue resident was clearly not happy with the situation.
“Against the advice of traffic planners, lots of people took Midland north from 27th Street to Eighth … emitting lots of exhaust fumes while moving at approximately 1 mile per hour through our residential neighborhood,” Nick Kelly said. “Meanwhile, across the Roaring Fork, vehicles on the Grand Avenue official detour route appear to be moving faster.”
The morning commute was a different story. Except for a long backup onto Interstate 70 as people waited to enter the detour route at Exit 114, the detour route itself was flowing smoothly.
The free Roaring Fork Transportation buses coming in from the western Garfield County Hogback route were full for the most part, and lots of people were biking and walking around Glenwood Springs to try to cut down on traffic. Downtown, crews went to work in earnest sawing, slicing, crunching and carting away the old bridge piece-by-piece.
Though difficult to quantify, officials did not believe they achieved the targeted one-third reduction in the number of vehicles traveling through Glenwood Springs, which can be 1,800 per hour at peak.
A continuing challenge will be to get more single-occupant vehicles off the road in favor of people carpooling with friends or coworkers, or taking the bus.
Tracy Trulove, CDOT Region 3 communications manager, said many drivers reported seeing lots of solo drivers on the detour, and it appeared that many people were rolling the dice Monday to test how difficult the detour will be to navigate.
Those same commuters will need to keep adapting and trying something different than they tried Monday, she said.
Riddile said he was impressed with the way the downtown portion of the detour was working, especially the so-called “square-about” where motorists use a one-way configuration along Grand and Eighth Street westbound and Colorado Avenue and Ninth Street eastbound.
Detour engineers do want morning commuters on I-70 are to merge into the right lane at about mile marker 112, leaving the left lane open to emergency vehicles and through traffic.
However, officials observed Monday morning that vehicles stayed in a single line all the way through Exit 114 and into the roundabout heading into Midland Avenue.
To help get more cars off the interstate faster, they recommend that drivers use both open lanes once they get on the Exit 114 off ramp. Vehicles should take up both lanes through the roundabout until it chokes back down to one lane just past Devereux Road.
At that point vehicles should take turns merging into one lane, in what Trulove called a “zipper merge.”
Filling both lanes uses the exit’s full capacity and helps get more vehicles off I-70 more quickly, Trulove said.
Throughout the day, police received reports of a number of fender benders, and a few minor crashes held up traffic briefly, including one South Glen Avenue and 27th Street in the morning, then one near McDonald’s on South Glen and one on westbound I-70 near Silt in the afternoon.
In the morning a car also broke down on I-70 west of Glenwood, briefly blocking traffic before crews could move it out of the way.
Chief Wilson said that two ambulance calls Monday morning went smoothly through the detour, based on feedback from the hospital and ambulance crews, though testing out the detour system’s emergency response was not something he had hoped for.
Steve Olson, CDOT program engineer and project team member, estimated during the height of the afternoon commute that about three to four out of every five vehicles were single-occupant vehicles on the detour route.
In the meantime, van carpools and RFTA buses were moving swiftly through the route between 27th Street and Sayre Park.
Trulove said that reports of the longest afternoon backups were to the Holy Cross Energy building on Colorado 82, just beyond the Buffalo Valley intersection.
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