CDOT re-opens Independence Pass, will try metering traffic

State transportation officials decided Friday to reopen Independence Pass on a limited basis in an effort to open up a route through the middle of the state while Interstate 70 remains closed because of a major wildfire.

However, officials emphasized that the reopening will not be the free-for-all mayhem and gridlock seen earlier this week, and could result in two-to-three hours delays as transportation workers only allow one group of cars through at a time.

“Anyone who thinks this is going to cut off any time going to Denver is probably mistaken,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Friday afternoon. “This isn’t going to cut any time off.”

The Pass opened at about 5:30 p.m. Friday amid a strong presence by Colorado Department of Transportation and Colorado State Patrol officials controlling the flow of cars.

“Motorists should expect slow speeds, lengthy travel times and potential delays of up to two hours,” according to a news release Friday evening. “Campers and recreational vehicles are strongly advised to seek an alternate southern route.”

Commercial trucks — semis — and other vehicles longer than 35-feet will be turned around by a CDOT team at the roundabout and not allowed up Independence Pass. In addition to RVs, vehicles pulling trailers, boats and other recreational equipment also will be kept off the pass, said Michelle Peulen, CDOT’s communications manager.

Only passenger car traffic will be allowed up the Pass. And even then, CDOT officials would prefer that people use the southern route through the state via U.S. Highway 50, which people can access on U.S. 285, Colorado Highway 9 or U.S. Highway 24 on the eastern side, she said.

Further, the department is in contact with commercial carriers and neighboring states to advise east-west commercial traffic to avoid Colorado altogether while I-70 through Glenwood Canyon is closed, and instead go through Wyoming on Interstate 80 or New Mexico on Interstate 40, Peulen said.

On Independence Pass, CDOT will stop cars below the first one-lane section of road on the Aspen side and let through one group of cars at a time, Peulen said. A flagger at the top of the second one-lane section on the Aspen side will ensure that two-way traffic through those areas doesn’t happen.

CDOT is hoping that stopping cars below the first one-lane section will allow enough room so that backups don’t hit the city of Aspen and disrupt traffic in town, DiSalvo said.

On the Twin Lakes side, cars will be stopped at the winter closure gate near the La Plata Trailhead and allowed through in groups from there, Peulen said.

Once the group from the Aspen side clears the two one-lane sections, flaggers will radio the Twin Lakes side and a group of cars from that side will begin the trek over the Pass, Peulen said. The next group from the Aspen side will be allowed to go over once the Twin Lakes side group clears the two one-lane sections on the Aspen side, she said.

The Pass will be manned and controlled 24 hours a day, Peulen said.

“There will be a heavy law enforcement presence on both the east and west sides of the Pass,” according to Friday’s news release.

The idea for the metering system came out of a rancorous conference call Friday morning featuring officials from Pitkin County, Garfield County, CDOT and the Colorado State Patrol. Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky called Pitkin County and CDOT officials “selfish” and “gutless” during the call for closing the Pass on Wednesday because traffic backups inconvenienced them.

By the end of Friday morning’s conference call, however, cooler heads prevailed.

Mike Goolsby, CDOT’s regional transportation director, finally said he wanted to try the metering system as an experiment and that if it started to compromise safety, he would shut down the Pass again and those who objected could take it up with his boss.

“Let’s try it,” he said. “Give us an opportunity to give it a shot and try to minimize the impacts to the community.”

John David, CDOT’s deputy maintenance supervisor, said the agency’s preference was to open the Pass and meter it. The situation Wednesday, Thursday and most of Friday, in which CDOT personnel were having to filter local residents, backcountry guides and campers heading up and down the Pass, was “a little tougher” to deal with than simply metering passenger traffic, he said.

Goolsby said that system was “a management nightmare.” He said CDOT could meter 15 to 20 cars at a time, but needed backup from law enforcement in case drivers became confrontational.

Peulen said CDOT reached out Friday to map applications like Google Maps, Apple Maps and Tom Tom to ensure that Independence Pass would no longer be provided as an alternative route to the I-70 closure.