Traffic plan for Indy Pass when I-70 closes topic for local law enforcement, transportation officials

‘Perfect storm’ of traffic events Monday led to ‘two ways of insanity’ in upper valley

Traffic jams Monday on Independence Pass and in Aspen because of the Glenwood Canyon closure will require a reassessment by authorities so the nightmare doesn’t happen when the canyon inevitably closes again.

That’s according to Parker Lathrop, director of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, who, with Undersheriff Alex Burchetta, spent five hours directing traffic Monday in the Lower Narrows section of the Pass.

“We’re just seeing more traffic than we’ve ever seen on the Pass,” Lathrop said Tuesday. “Then with (Interstate-70) closed, it was a just a perfect storm.”

A conference call involving the Sheriff’s Office, Aspen Police, Colorado State Patrol and the Colorado Department of Transportation will likely take place in the upcoming days when those involved will discuss what worked and what did not Monday in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, he said.

Glenwood Canyon has closed frequently in recent years for rockfall, wildfire and now mudslides, and there’s no reason to believe that trend won’t continue. That’s why it’s essential to refine the plan to police the Pass when the interstate closes and drivers of oversized vehicles inevitably ignore the 35-foot limit signs, attempt to drive the Pass and cause major problems, Lathrop said.

The weather forecast for the rest of the week in Glenwood Springs calls for rain.

“(Another closure) could happen tomorrow,” Lathrop said.

The main problems Monday on Independence Pass started about 1:30 p.m., when a large pickup towing a large trailer, which was over the 35-foot limit, dropped one of the trailer wheels off the side of the Lower Narrows section and high-centered the trailer on rocks, Lathrop said. That blocked the road and set up a traffic jam that easily ensnared hundreds of cars.

When Lathrop finally reached the scene, he told the truck driver he’d have to unhook the trailer and leave it until the traffic cleared, but the driver refused to do so, Lathrop said. Instead, the man gunned the pickup’s engine and dragged the trailer off the rocks.

“Once he moved, there was a logjam of cars that had to make it through,” he said. “There was miles of backup on both sides.”

While the Colorado Department of Transportation officially closed the road, it was never actually shutdown, Lathrop said. Law enforcement initially thought the Pass would have to be closed to deal with the stuck trailer.

The two narrows sections of the road caused the main problems Monday. Around 3 p.m., one eastbound driver in a Toyota Tacoma apparently froze in the middle of the Upper Narrows section and caused a traffic jam of about 250 cars that could not move while the westbound lanes kept moving to the Lower Narrows, where Lathrop and Burchetta had to direct traffic to ease the backups.

Adding to the headaches was a broken down RV near the Grottos, which also caused traffic issues, Lathrop said.

In town, sheriff’s deputies turned around numerous semi-trucks near the Mountain Rescue Aspen building across from the airport, while officers from the Aspen Police Department did the same for semis that slipped through and were attempting to drive up Independence Pass.

Then came rush hour in downtown Aspen.

Because both eastbound and westbound lanes of I-70 were closed most of Monday, the massive lines of traffic over the Pass and through Aspen went both directions.

“It’s usually only one direction,” said Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn. “This time it was two ways of insanity.”

That meant the growing line of westbound Pass traffic merged with the usual Aspen rush hour traffic trying to leave town, which created massive jams on Highway 82 through town, he said.

“It was the worst traffic I’ve ever seen,” Linn said. “(Westbound traffic) was backed up (from beyond the roundabout) all the way to McSkimming Road.”

Aspen officers didn’t allow traffic to turn left into Aspen at the Cemetery Lane intersection, and directed downvalley traffic to use the bus lane after the roundabout in an effort to relieve some of the congestion, he said.

“The volume of traffic was just off the charts,” Linn said.

Finally, Colorado State Patrol and sheriff’s deputies had to deal with a DUI-related crash at the intersection of Highway 82 and Smith Hill Road that also added to the problems, Lathrop said.

Once the eastbound lanes of 1-70 through Glenwood Canyon opened about 3 p.m. the traffic volume dropped off quickly, Lathrop said. Westbound I-70 lanes opened soon after that.

The Sheriff’s Office handed out two oversized vehicle tickets, while CSP wrote one other, Lathrop said. The tickets cost drivers between $1,100 and $1,200.

One of the main problems was the Lake County side of the Pass, where there was either no one stationed to stop oversized traffic or the agency stationed only stopped commercial traffic and did not stop oversized RVs and trucks pulling trailers from going over the Pass, Lathrop said.