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Carving through the canyon

Brent Gardner-Smith

The great walls and bridges of the Snowmass Canyon Highway 82 widening project are going up on schedule and on budget, according to project engineer Ed Archuleta with the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The 3.7-mile-long project between the Old Snowmass Conoco station and Gerbazdale is still slated to cost $97,168,250.

“I really think we’re going to hit that,” Archuleta said. “I think we are over the hump in terms of unknowns, but you never know.”

And the upvalley lanes now under construction are still expected to open on Nov. 30, 2003. “That’s been our goal,” said Archuleta. “And we’re pretty much where we thought we would be.”

The entire project is expected to be finished by Nov. 1, 2005, although there is a $325,000 incentive for the contractors if the project is essentially complete by Nov. 30, 2004.

The incentive had originally been pegged at $500,000 but has since been renegotiated with the contractors so that some of the incentive is now tied to the opening of the upvalley lanes. Those lanes are now, for the most part, discernible to an alert motorist driving upvalley.

Driving Snowmass Canyon today is a voyage through a new series of curving walls and soaring bridges up on concrete towers. Two of the bridges and a good length of the roadway aren’t visible from the existing lanes because they are perched up on the steep hillside behind a thick collection of spruce trees.

The progress on the walls and bridges has come day by day, with lots of hard work from Ames Construction, the general contractor; Yenter, the company building the 42 concrete retaining walls; and Kraemer and Sons, which is building the six bridges in the project.

Also taking shape are seven concrete box culverts designed to channel mud and floodwaters out from the steep gullies and under the new roadways.

There are about 125 people working on the job on any given day, and the logistics of the project are highly complex. But so far, Archuleta said the different companies and crews are working well together.

“It’s not like everybody is hugging all the time, but it has been going really well,” he said. And most of the truly difficult work on the project is completed.

“I’m sleeping better,” said Joe Elsen, the project’s supervising engineer with CDOT. “There are things that are just flat-out technically challenging and access was really one of the hard challenges, as this project is steeper and more difficult than Glenwood Canyon.”

That project, which widened Interstate 70 from two lanes to four through 12 miles of winding canyon along the Colorado River, included a series of cantilevered bridges and miles of retaining walls stepped up the hillside from the river. It was started in 1980 and completed in 1993 at a cost of $450 million.

The Snowmass Canyon project is mostly about building walls, which are held against the natural hillside by 10-to-15-foot soil nails. To make the system work, shafts are drilled into the hillside, the nails are inserted, and concrete is then poured around the nails.

Drilling for most of the nails has been completed, although the hard, noisy, dusty work of operating the drilling machine is still ongoing.

Shaun Brainard of Rifle has been in charge of drilling the “unthinkable ” number of soil-nail shafts along the length of the project. Brainard has worked on numerous highway wall-building projects around the state.

“This one is definitely the most challenging due to the wide variety of rocks and soils,” he said.

And while the job site has required an army of cranes, drills, dump trucks and other machines, it also has involved countless tasks only a construction worker can do – chipping ice out of the dirt roadway so concrete can be poured, guiding sections of concrete wall into place, or wrapping just-poured sections of walls with plastic so the concrete will set up correctly despite freezing temperatures.

Of the six bridges, five are on the upvalley side of the project. Bridge 1, the farthest downvalley, is complete. Bridge 2 should be substantially complete by June 1. Both bridges are hard to see today, because they are 60 feet above the original roadway and hidden by the tall spruce trees on the hillside.

Bridge 3 will be on the downvalley lanes and will be started after traffic is moved from the current lanes to the new upvalley lanes. It will be placed just downvalley from the giant dirt stockpile in the middle of the canyon, “Ground Zero” for the project’s immense roadbed material.

Bridge 4 is in place just below the stockpile. It was the first span to be completed and is now painted “Highway 82 brown,” which will eventually tint the entire project. The color is nowhere close to the red rock hue that marks the length of the canyon, but was chosen by citizen groups in the design phase of the project.

Both Bridges 3 and 4 are designed to provide underpasses for elk and deer. The animals frequently come off the hillside in the area to reach the Roaring Fork River. While it appears there is hardly room underneath Bridge 3 for an elk to walk without brushing his antlers, the hillside will eventually be carved out to accommodate the four-footed natives.

Bridges 5 and 6, the farthest upvalley, are essentially complete as well. Crews are slowly removing the iron “falsework” used to support the bridges through construction.

These two 950-foot-long spans are the most complicated of the six bridges in the project. They are both “cast-in-place, box-girder, post-tension” bridges, which means the concrete is poured in place and that the bridges have been strengthened by pulling cables tight along their length.

Overall, the project has moved along for two years with few changes to the original plan.

Archuleta credits the early and extensive geotechnical work as one reason. Engineers were able to accurately predict what construction crews would run into as they drilled into the side of the canyon.

There have been some changes to the project. Crews are using a deeper foundation for some of the “double-T walls” in the lower stretches of the canyon, and two of the bridges – Bridge 1 and Bridge 2 – are simpler than originally designed.

But these are changes only an engineer could love, and aren’t likely to be noticed by a passing motorist.

The project has also been a safe one, according to Archuleta. One construction worker lost a finger. Another dislocated his shoulder. And that’s it. While those injuries are serious to the men involved, they are minor in the context of the constant danger on the job site.

Last week, a crew of men was using a crane to lift concrete wall facings into place.

The grooved sections of concrete were transported from Denver to be placed over the roughly poured concrete walls that keep the hillsides at bay. The panels now line long sections of the project and will be the motorists’ constant companion in the future.

As the roughly 10-by-20-foot sections of wall were being moved into place, it required hands-on attention. Someone had to secure the wall section so it could be lifted. Another had to guide it into place. Another had to unhook it from the cables that brought it into position. At any point in the process, a lapse in judgment or a false move could mean big trouble.

Overall, the Snowmass Canyon project is an elaborate exercise in anchoring a highway to a steep hillside. More than 25,000 yards of concrete will be poured to form the retaining walls. And more than 800,000 cubic yards of dirt will be moved from one location to another.

But perhaps the most important thing about the project, at least from a motorist’s standpoint, is that it has caused few delays in daily traffic.

Downvalley traffic has been rerouted onto Lower River Road during the morning commute. The detour downvalley takes seven minutes longer, but at least motorists are moving.

“Complaints have been minimal,” said Elsen. “People just like to be moving. They can actually be delayed longer, but if they are moving, they don’t complain.”

Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com


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