The worst spot on Highway 82
PITKIN COUNTY – Warm weather renewed an unwelcome trend in recent weeks: Drivers on Highway 82 whip downvalley with confidence bolstered by sunny skies and dry pavement. They enter Snowmass Canyon clipping along well over the 50-mph speed limit. They encounter a sheet of ice in a series of curves and – WHACK! – into the guardrail or another vehicle they go.
It’s a scenario that’s playing out way too often this winter, according to emergency responders from the Basalt Fire Department, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado State Patrol.
Basalt sent ambulance crews, fire trucks or both to mile marker 30 on westbound Highway 82 eight times between New Year’s Eve and Jan. 31, according to Fire Chief Scott Thompson. A ninth call came Monday when two cars slammed into the guardrail a little farther downvalley in the shady canyon. A lane was closed, and traffic crawled by for more than two hours while the carnage was cleaned up and the vehicles towed.
“The overall problem is people are coming into the canyon too fast,” said Capt. Rich Duran, who heads the Colorado State Patrol’s office in Glenwood Springs.
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Ironically, the problem is worse when the winter weather is better. When the road in the open straight-away approaching the canyon is snow-packed, traffic travels slower, Duran said. But when conditions are dry, many drivers who are unfamiliar with the road fail to think ahead.
On warm days, the snow that has accumulated during the winter against the concrete barriers melts. The three curves at the east entrance to the canyon in the westbound lanes are banked, so the water from the melting snow spills onto the travel lanes, noted Tom Grady, director of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
In the dead of winter, the sun quickly disappears from the roadway in the narrow canyon, and by “2 o’clock you’re in full shadow and ice,” Grady said.
He helped direct traffic during Monday afternoon’s accident. He said the shoulder parts of the travel lanes just looked wet, but he knew from experience it was black ice slick enough to skate on.
Eight of the Basalt ambulance crews’ responses to the area have come since Jan. 22, after the Roaring Fork Valley emerged from a deep freeze and daytime high temperatures climbed, setting up the slick conditions in the afternoons. When it stayed cold, the snow on the banked curves of Snowmass Canyon didn’t melt.
Grady said both residents and visitors are involved in the accidents. Many local drivers have a “blatant disregard” for the speed limits on the highway despite knowing the canyon can be a problem, he said.
Both Grady and Duran recently have written letters to the Colorado Department of Transportation asking them to make some changes designed to decrease the number of accidents in the canyon, according to Grady. His letter raised concern over the drainage of snowmelt in the banked curves. He suggested maintenance crews need to do something to prevent that water from turning to ice.
He also wants the state to reconsider the speed limit through that stretch. “It should be slowed down for the wintertime,” Grady said.
Duran concurred. He said real-time temperature sensors in the roadway that are connected to signs that alert drivers when conditions are ripe for ice would improve safety.
A sign in a problem area of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon has eased problems there, Duran said. An eye-catching sign at the Shoshone Curve tells drivers how fast they are going and warns they are approaching a 45-mph curve. “That has worked,” Duran said.
He and Grady said something clearly needs to be done in Snowmass Canyon because the problem has been consistent since the road was expanded to four lanes.
In addition to accidents, rescuers and law enforcement officers face hazards responding to accidents in that stretch because of the threat of getting rear-ended or side-swiped by traffic. Grady said the first deputies on the scene Monday had difficulty slowing traffic despite use of traffic cones and flashing overhead lights. The safety concerns force lane closures.
The state transportation department is aware of problems in Snowmass Canyon, said spokeswoman Nancy Shanks. The agency has applied for federal Hazard Elimination System Funds to make unspecified improvements, she said. That fund helped pay for the wildlife fencing erected last fall on Highway 82 along Aspen Glen and east of the intersection of Highways 82 and 133, hot spots for wildlife-vehicle collisions.
The transportation department is also exploring an “Intelligent Transportation System” that alerts drivers to real-time conditions, Shanks said. No study is currently under way on a possible speed limit reduction.
“It is up to folks to slow down,” Shanks said.
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