Highway department ready to study future of detour routes when I-70 closes in Glenwood Canyon
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Regional Transportation Director David Eller told members of the Routt County Board of Commissioners and Steamboat Springs City Council on Aug. 2 that in the wake of the Feb. 15 rock fall onto Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, which rerouted much of the interstate’s traffic volume through northwest Colorado, the Colorado Department of Transportation is preparing to take a fresh look at the limitations of Colorado Highway 131 serving as an emergency detour route for traffic when I-70 is shut down.
“We’re kicking off a program on the I-70 corridor,” Eller said, to determine “where critical areas are. It’s focused around natural disasters — fires, floods and when that highway closes, what’s your redundancy?”
Of Highway 131 he said, “If it’s a critical core for redundancy, maybe you give it more credit.”
Motorists in Steamboat Springs and Craig saw a dramatic increase in traffic, including over-the-road trucks, when a 24-mile stretch of I-70 between Glenwood Springs on the west and Gypsum on the east closed completely for nearly a week after the massive rockfall came down.
Interstate traffic was detoured up Colorado Highway 13 from Rifle west of Glenwood to Meeker and then to Craig, where the traffic headed west to Hayden and Steamboat on U.S. Highway 40 before heading south again to the interstate via Colorado 131.
Noting that Colorado 131 in particular is not built to carry those traffic volumes, State Highway Commission Chairwoman Kathy Connell of Steamboat Springs reiterated her concerns that regional highways will continue to sustain significant damage when the canyon is closed.
Emblematic of that issue is the damage the extra truck traffic did to the aging bridge on Colorado 131 where the highway crosses the Colorado River south of Bond. CDOT had to undertake a $6 million dollar repair of the bridge in May.
According to traffic-counting data CDOT collected during one of the first days the detour was in effect, 3,743 vehicles traveled on U.S. 40 near the southern entrance of the city, 46 percent more traffic than the year before.
Eller, who oversees the upkeep of highways and bridges across a large swath of Western Colorado comprising 15 counties and 5,000 road miles, said his agency’s outlook on the impact of natural disasters on highways and alternative routes were reshaped by the devastating Front Range floods of early September 2013, when sections of roads in Big Thompson and Buckhorn canyons were washed away.
“On the Front Range, when I-25 goes down, it’s critical, but they have a lot of choices,” Connell said. “We don’t have the choices in northwest Colorado. We’ve got to have money in our budget to provide funds for (Colorado Roads) 40 and 131 as emergency routes so they can be capable,” of handling heavy traffic.
CDOT has a placeholder in its 2019 State Transportation Improvement Program that could fund $2 million to add 1- to 2-foot shoulders along Colorado 131 in Oak Creek Canyon south of Steamboat.