Rock slide: Eagle County officials looking again at alternate route
Aspen, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. – Brad Higgins has been wary of Glenwood Canyon since Interstate 70 opened all four lanes through it more than 16 years ago. It didn’t help matters when Higgins’ truck was hit by a falling rock in the canyon last week.
Higgins, the director of the Eagle County Road and Bridge Department, is a believer in creating an emergency detour route to the canyon over Cottonwood Pass. But he also knows, perhaps better than anyone else, what a project like that might mean in the long run.
In the wake of a massive rock slide in Glenwood Canyon that has closed I-70 until further notice, county officials Monday put a large road sign on Valley Road in Gypsum, telling motorists that the Cottonwood Pass road is closed.
Looking at a map, it’s easy to believe there’s a road that goes from Gypsum all the way to U.S. Highway 82 just south of Glenwood Springs. And there is. But even in the summer, the road would be pressed past its limits to handle even 1,000 cars a day, much less the 24,000 or so that travel the canyon every day. In the winter, the road isn’t maintained from November through April, and only the brave, crazy, or people with snowmobiles or snow cats even think about taking that route.
Still, there’s that line on the map, and it creates problems.
When another rockslide closed the canyon a few years ago in November, a semi tractor-trailer rig jackknifed on the pass, and a county road grader was pressed into service to pull cars over the top.
Depending on how long the canyon is closed – anything much past this weekend – county crews may try to open up the road for at least limited travel.
“I suppose we’d need to have a pilot car, because it’s not a two-lane road,” Eagle County Manager Keith Montag said. And there would have to be help available for those whose cars couldn’t make it.
But this week’s canyon closure could get people talking.
“This may initiate some conversation again, with us and (the Colorado Department of Transportation),” Montag said.
Higgins, a county native who’s worked for the county for much of his adult life, said the idea comes up from time to time, and nothing comes of it. The last time county officials approached state transportation officials about an emergency route around Glenwood Canyon, “there was zero interest,” Higgins said.
Part of the problem is cost.
Uneducated guesses about the cost of creating even an all-weather two-lane gravel road range from Montag’s “a helluva lot” to Higgins’ slightly more refined “millions.”
“Even a study to determine what the cost would be could be $500,000 or more, Higgins said.
Then there’s the matter of where the money would come from. The state’s budget problems have been well publicized, and Eagle County isn’t swimming in money any more, either. That leaves the federal government, and Higgins said there’s not really any money to be had from the Federal Highway Administration, either.
If the money could be found, there would be some tough political decisions, too. Even just a two-lane road would require moving some homes on the Garfield County side of the pass. The current road also passes through pieces of national forest land that are part of the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal.
And, Higgins said, the road also passes by the ranches of some owners who might think a better road might create an opportunity for development.
With all that in mind, though, Higgins believes it’s high time for an emergency alternative to Glenwood Canyon.
“It would be a huge undertaking,” he said. “But the conversation needs to happen.”
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