State, Pitkin County teaming on system to steer big rigs away from Independence Pass

A semi-truck gets stuck as it tries to turn around near the closure gate on Independence Pass in February 2016. Truckers and other motorists had headed toward Aspen seeking an alternative route during the Glenwood Canyon closure without realizing the pass is closed during winter months.
Ryan Leland/ courtesy photo |

A new system designed to prevent big rigs from heading east from Aspen over Independence Pass won’t be installed before the Grand Avenue Bridge closes in Glenwood Springs in August.

The Colorado Department of Transportation and Pitkin County are teaming on a project to try to prevent vehicles longer than 35 feet from trying to negotiate the pass. The system won’t be in place until late August or early September, according to a CDOT official.

There’s been an increasing problem in recent years with vehicles, especially tractor-trailers, ignoring signs warning of the length prohibition. Larger vehicles cannot make the tight turns effectively, resulting in delays for all traffic. The state passed a law raising the fine for driving a large vehicle on Independence Pass to $1,500, but the problem has persisted.

By most accounts, it’s expected to get worse during the 95-day closure of the Grand Avenue Bridge in Glenwood Springs starting Aug. 14. Drivers of large vehicles will likely use their onboard GPS systems to seek alternate routes. The systems typically don’t warn about length restrictions.

“I think it’s going to be a complete cluster. We’re anticipating a huge increase in use of the pass,” said Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation.

The foundation has worked with the Colorado Department of Transportation and Pitkin County to seek ways to ease the problem on the pass.

Last fall, CDOT and Pitkin County approved funding for a system that would combine a large-vehicle detection system with a chicane that would physically prohibit big rigs and force them to use a turnaround space on Highway 82.

The chicane system, considered vital to the success of the project when officials discussed it in September, has been eliminated.

Instead, CDOT will install the detection system and Pitkin County will build the turnaround space for a project estimated to cost about $500,000.

Mark Bunnell, project engineer for CDOT, said a detection system similar to what is used at stop lights will be embedded into the pavement of Highway 82 close to the entrance to Difficult Campground.

The system will detect when vehicles estimated at 35 feet and longer are passing by. That will trigger an electronic message saying an oversized vehicle was detected. Beacon lights will flash on that sign to draw attention of drivers, Bunnell said.

A second sign will inform drivers that they must turn around at a designated spot ahead.

CDOT will pay for the detection and sign system, estimated at about $270,000.

Pitkin County is responsible for the turnaround, which will require additional pavement, guardrails and stripping, said G.R. Fielding, Pitkin County engineer. Bids have just come in. County officials hope a contractor can start construction in the “early part of the summer.”

Bunnell said even in the best scenario, the project won’t be completed by Aug. 14, when the bridge closes in Glenwood Springs. The closure will force all vehicles entering and exiting Interstate 70 to use the West Glenwood interchange. Hefty delays are expected.

Bunnell said there is no specific assessment on how the bridgework will affect Independence Pass.

“I think we’re hoping for the best but planning for the worst,” he said.

The chicane was eliminated from the plan at the county’s request, Bunnell said. He believes the plan was altered based on feedback from residents.

Fielding said he was unaware of why the chicane was eliminated as he wasn’t part of all planning meetings. Officials viewed the chicane in September as a critical component of the project.

“It would basically squeeze (big vehicles) out if they continued up the Pass,” Fielding said.

Both Fielding and Bunnell said a chicane could be added if the detection system and turnaround don’t prove effective.

Lake County isn’t investing in any type of system on the Twin Lakes side of the pass for vehicles heading west toward Aspen.

“We coordinated with them early on and they had zero interest,” Bunnell said.