Smooth sailing in sight for 82 |

Smooth sailing in sight for 82

Commuters only have three more months to wait before there is clear sailing on four lanes of Highway 82 through Snowmass Canyon.The ribbon-cutting for the costly, 3.5-mile stretch is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 22, according to Joe Elsen, a Colorado Department of Transportation program engineer overseeing the widening project.Ames Construction, CDOT’s contractor on the Snowmass Canyon stretch, will earn a $500,000 bonus for getting the project finished 13 months ahead of the schedule specified in a contract, Elsen said.CDOT will recoup some of that bonus because it won’t be paying for labor and materials next year, when prices inevitably will be higher.Snowmass Canyon alone cost $100 million to widen, or more than $30 million per mile. In comparison, the cost of expanding Interstate 70 through 12 miles of Glenwood Canyon was $500 million or about $41 million per mile, Elsen noted. Glenwood Canyon was more costly due to a tunnel and four rest areas.For commuters, completion of the highway will bring safer and speedier travel, at least as far as Buttermilk where the two eastbound lanes narrow to one, creating a wormhole a few miles shy of Aspen.Sending traffic through the canyon more efficiently could be offset by creating bigger bottlenecks at the wormhole.But travel will be safer because capacity will be increased for roughly the same number of vehicles that used the two-lane road, Elsen noted. Sight distances have also been improved and the number of access points reduced, according to Pete Mertes, CDOT project engineer.The two-lane highway earned the name “Killer 82″ because of the high number of fatal accidents, particularly in the canyon. Head-on collisions on icy pavement were frequent in winter.Now the lanes are separated by more than just two yellow stripes; they are physically separated.”Maybe that moniker could go to rest,” said Elsen.During construction, Ames benefited from dry summers and mild winters two of the last three years. The company has been able to work almost year-round, according to Mertes.At the peak of construction, there were close to 200 people working on the project, Mertes estimated. CDOT had about 25 employees on the site to administer the contract while Ames and its subcontractors had close to 175 workers, including traffic control.Snowmass Canyon was the seventh and final project along the Basalt-to-Buttermilk stretch of highway. Work on that 14-mile stretch cost a total of $200 million – half was spent on the 3.5-mile canyon alone. It was costly because the highway right of way is squeezed between mountains and the Roaring Fork River, and the highway had to be perched on a steep slope.The upvalley or eastbound lanes through the canyon were completed last year. They were costly because many bridges were required.Paving on about two miles of the new downvalley lanes starts Tuesday, according to Mertes. There are two retaining walls remaining to complete, along with landscaping and final grading and paving on about 1.5 miles of the stretch, he said.Elsen and Mertes said the Snowmass Canyon project features several innovations in highway construction. One of the most important was taking steps to ensure the soils excavated along the route could be reused rather than hauled away.In years past, the soils encountered would have been deemed unsuitable for reuse for the road’s foundation. But two predominant types of soils were mixed to create a stable base. That allowed CDOT and Ames to avoid hauling 100 million cubic yards of material away and trucking in other fill, which would have required countless truck trips and increased disruption of traffic.The canyon project also includes some environmentally conscious touches. In one case, a bridge was extended longer than necessary for traffic in order to provide additional protection for wetlands and to create an inviting area for deer and elk to pass under the highway. A second set of bridges will provide another wildlife underpass.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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