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Glenwood Springs Council to vote on South Bridge project plans

A view of the proposed location for the South Bridge project at Glenwood Springs Airport. Shannon Marvel / Post Independent

No one dismisses the need for the South Bridge Project, but where to construct the alternative route is a subject of debate in Glenwood Springs.

The Glenwood Springs City Council will vote on whether to go with the first option for the project route, which would bore underneath the runway at the municipal airport. That route would begin at Midland Avenue and Four Mile Road, where it would follow Airport Road before tunneling below the airport’s runway. The South Bridge would then cross the Roaring Fork River before connecting to Colorado Highway 82.

A second option would remove 43 feet of the runway on the southern end and add length to the northern end, then move the southern runway threshold to the north. The $6 million price tag of that option is one council members have been grappling with for months.



The current length of the runway is 3,305 feet.

Councilors passed a motion to vote on which option they will move forward with during next week’s meeting on a 4-2 vote, with Councilor Steve Davis and Mayor Jonathan Godes voting no.




Some councilors expressed how they would vote anyway during the meeting, including Councilor Tony Hershey, who said he’d be voting for the least expensive option.

“I don’t support a tunnel and it’s way too expensive,” Hershey said. “I appreciate the airport. It’s a good resource, but a great resource is an alternative route in and out of town.”

Councilor Shelley Kaup expressed her concern on how shortening the airport runway would cut off runway access for a small business that provides maintenance services to aircrafts.

“We don’t have a solution for that, or we’re putting a small business potentially out of business,” Kaup said. “The idea of shortening the runway isn’t a good solution right now.”

Kaup added that the city needs to fully explore whether they could swing the additional $6 million cost to tunnel underneath the airport by seeing whether other funding sources are available.

Davis kept his thoughts short and sweet and said when choosing between a net difference of 43 feet of runway versus $6 million, it’s a “a pretty easy decision.”

City officials have also been mulling over conducting an air space study to determine how shortening the runway and placing a bridge right beside it would impact pilots coming in and taking off from the airport.

City Manager Terri Partch said she has inquired about the cost of such study, but has yet to receive a response and could not provide a ballpark estimate during Thursday evening’s meeting.

Assuming the worst-case fire scenario, hundreds of lives would be saved if Glenwood Springs moves forward with the South Bridge project, according to Partch’s South Bridge cost/benefit presentation.

The bridge, which would cross the Roaring Fork River and connect to Colorado Highway 82, would offer a second evacuation route to residents located within the city’s fire district,

Partch presented the analysis during a special meeting Thursday evening.

Without the bridge and assuming that a fire comparable to the Pine Gulch Fire takes place, “all of the Oak Meadows residents, and most of Black Diamond residents are trapped in their homes.”

“The other residents within the Four Mile Corridor are able to leave their homes, but are trapped on Four Mile Road by the fire,” the presentation states.

Within 54 minutes, the fire reaches the southern boundary, during which 900 vehicles from south Glenwood would have reached Colorado State Highway 82, while 432 vehicles remain on Midland with a traffic jam extending 1.8 miles down the corridor.

“The fire moves through south Glenwood in 11.9 minutes. An additional 199 cars escape. All residential areas south of the bridge are lost. Total lives lost from the two corridors: 1,258. Total homes lost from the two corridors: 1,032,” the presentation states.

That scenario with the South Bridge would see the lives of 575 in Oak Meadows and Black Diamond lost.

The estimations in Partch’s presentation used data from past fire incidents that have occurred in the Glenwood Springs area since 1994, which included the Coal Seam Fire, which reached 12,209 acres in size and destroyed 29 structures.

“The South Bridge project idea was developed after the Coal Seam Fire in 2002. During that fire, I-70 closed. The fire was advancing from the west, and above the Three Mile area in south Glenwood. West Glenwood residents evacuated south on Highway 82, creating a bumper-to-bumper back up extending over Independence Pass,” the presentation states.

Residents from the south corridor tried to evacuate over the 27th Street bridge and were backed up on the road along Midland, Four Mile and Three Mile due to the back up and congested conditions on Highway 82.

That prompted the city to ask the federal government for funding to evaluate adding a second southern bridge connection for the city that would allow for a faster evacuation.

The presentation also noted the unusually dry drought conditions that have plagued the state of Colorado over the past year. As of Feb. 23, Garfield County is experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions, according to the United States Drought Monitor.

It was drought-stressed vegetation that fueled the state’s third-largest wildfire, the Pine Gulch Fire, which burned through 139,007 acres and was started by a lightning strike on July 31, 2020, about 18 miles north of Grand Junction.

Partch also estimated models of lives and property loss without the South Bridge based on the Cameron Peak Fire and the East Troublesome Fire.

The city has been planning and designing a second southern bridge connection from south Glenwood since 2007. Thursday evening’s presentation will look at the cost benefit model for the project as developed for the city’s FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Grant application.

The project’s total estimated cost is approximately $50.7 million without the tunnel, and $56.7 million. The city is seeking a $31 million FEMA grant for its construction and plans to request further funding from the Garfield County Commission.

Partch stressed that the models were for what could happen, not what would happen.

The experience of getting stuck in traffic during a fire evacuation was not lost on Mina Bolton, spokeswoman for the Glenwood Springs fire department.

Bolton emotionally recalled when she had to evacuate from Estes Park during the East Troublesome Fire on Oct. 22, 2020.

“I was barely on (U.S. Highway) 36, a two lane highway, when the parking lot effect took hold,” Bolton said.” I was stuck in traffic at a complete standstill. The sky turned blood red. That is what I sat in for hours, not moving.”

“The sky, the way it was, it was really hard to tell if we were in imminent danger of being burned over. When I looked around there were tons of vulnerable people and some looked hysterical. I did know the fire was moving in my direction quicker than I was moving away from it.”

Bolton said she then began looking for places to shelter if she needed to evacuate from her vehicle, though she did eventually return to the incident command post. That drive, which under normal conditions takes an hour to complete, took Bolton 5.5 hours in evacuation traffic.

“During that 5.5 hours I spent a lot of thinking how my hometown Glenwood would respond in a similar situation,” Bolton said before becoming choked up.

“I’ve been in these discussions before but sitting in there for that long, really drives this home,” she said.

Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson provided information on how locals could increase their chances of survival in the event of a major fire and consequential evacuation.

Tillotson said all residents should register with the reverse 911 system, which can be done by going to https://garco911.org.

Tillotson said that having an evacuation plan in place and maintaining a checklist for that plan is crucial.

Storing important documents offsite is also important, Tillotson added, noting that most fire safes won’t withstand the temperatures in a fire that consumes an entire residence.

“I was in the East Troublesome blow-up and saw a lot of terrifying stuff. Those houses burned in excess of 2,000 degrees. None of the fire-proof safes survived,” Tillotson said.

“The message for me was if your house is in fact unfortunately consumed by a fire, a fire safe is not going to be your best friend. But at the end of the day, and the reason folks lose their lives in fire situations is when they decide to ignore evacuation orders and stay behind. That is a huge part of that educational thing,” he added.

Tillotson said well prepared evacuees should check on their neighbors to ensure they’re getting evacuated as well.

Tillotson stressed that Partch’s assumptions don’t have to be the actual result.

“The good news is they were assumptions. (Partch) had to assume air support was not readily available, that conditions would and could drive a fire at these rates and over these amounts of time, and that everybody was home,” Tillotson said. “If all the residents were home, it would take them 15 minutes to pack and get out. There were a huge number of assumptions, and I just want to reiterate, although this could happen, it doesn’t mean it will.”

Former Glenwood Springs City Councilor Dave Merritt spoke during the public comment period for the presentation, noting that when he served on the council in 2002 during the Coal Seam Fire, he saw firsthand how important evacuation routes can be to saving lives.

“People were leaving their cars on (Colorado Highway) 6 and walking because it got so bad,”’ Meritt recalled. “You can never have enough evacuation routes.”

By the numbers …

East Troublesome Fire WITHOUT SOUTH BRIDGE

• Spreads at a rate of 3,629 acres per hour

• Covers Four Mile corridor in 1.85 hours

• 644 vehicles trapped

• 921 lives lost

• All homes in corridor destroyed

East Troublesome Fire WITH SOUTH BRIDGE

• Spreads at a rate of 3,629 acres per hour

• Covers Four Mile corridor in 1.85 hours

• No vehicles trapped

• No lives lost

• 389 homes destroyed

Pine Gulch Fire WITHOUT SOUTH BRIDGE

• Spreads at a rate of 7,500 acres per hour

• All residential areas south of bridge are lost

• 1,258 lives lost

• 1,032 homes destroyed

Pine Gulch Fire WITH SOUTH BRIDGE

• Spreads at a rate of 7,500 acres per hour

• 575 lives lost

• All property in both corridors are destroyed

 


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