The closure of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon due to mud and rockslides highlighted the importance of this corridor to our state but also exposed the fragility of our statewide transportation system and lack of resiliency.
The shutdown of I-70 through the canyon is not only affecting those who live, work or vacation along the I-70 corridor but also everyone in our state because of its impact on the overall movement of goods and people in our state.
Further, the implications of the closure go far beyond Colorado and have serious impacts on regional and national commerce and travel. For example, trucks transporting freight across the country are being routed hundreds of miles out of the way, which translates into higher costs for businesses and consumers as well as greater emissions.
The challenges associated with I-70 through Glenwood Canyon are neither new nor unforeseen. While I-70 through Glenwood Canyon represents one of the greatest engineering achievements in the state, there was always the understanding of the risk that rocks may fall periodically from the sandstone walls and cliffs. Various times over the years the roadway has been closed because of rockfall that in some cases damaged the bridge deck or highway or at other times merely blocked the roadway.
With wildfires in the canyon in the past year a new problem arose — mudslides. The fires burned away much of the vegetation and there is nothing to hold dirt and debris in check in the event of significant precipitation. Unfortunately, it may be several years before adequate vegetation takes hold and in the interim, we may see additional mudslides in the area.
Last week CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew testified before the General Assembly’s Transportation Legislative Review Committee and discussed the substantial damage to I-70 through Glenwood Canyon from the recent mud and rockslides. Director Lew outlined not only the harm done to the roadway and bridges spanning this corridor but also identified the actions being taken by CDOT to clear the roadway and address any structural problems created by the slides. She further stated that CDOT understood the impact that the closure was having on many throughout the state and their commitment to try to reopen the highway as early as possible.
To her credit Director Lew acknowledged that based on the geology of the canyon and burn scar, and despite their best efforts, additional closures may happen in the future. Based on this, she mentioned that CDOT had been exploring options for a shorter detour around the Canyon than the current one which is an additional 100 miles over mostly two-lane roadways and traveling through several communities. Overall, travelers can anticipate that the current detour will add an additional two hours to their trip. In regard to an alternate detour, Director Lew specifically mentioned that consideration should be given to improving Cottonwood Pass which is a 21-mile county road between Glenwood Springs and Gypsum that circumvents Glenwood Canyon.
We commend CDOT for not only their extraordinary efforts toward reopening I-70 as early as possible but also broaching the issue of the need for a reasonable and safe detour around I-70 for those times when Glenwood Canyon is closed.
The concept of a detour around Glenwood Canyon is not a new one. Nor is the proposal that the possible route be Cottonwood Pass. The idea has been put forward by various parties, including our association, over the years. Usually this idea is floated following an extended closure. In the past, though, even the suggestion that Cottonwood Pass be improved and serve as a detour to I-70, was met with resistance by many at the local level over traffic and environmental concerns.
On our part we understand that Cottonwood Pass would need to have significant improvements to allow it to accommodate more traffic including trucks in a safe manner. We also appreciate that any improvements be done in an environmentally sensitive manner. CDOT has estimated that the cost for such improvements would be $50 million. Their analysis also indicated that the benefits outweigh the cost by a 2-to-1 factor. In our eyes the estimated benefits are greatly understated. We suspect that the overall costs to businesses and the travelers to date associated with this most recent closure may already exceed the total cost of improving Cottonwood Pass.
Based on recent news reports, it appears that many in the counties where Cottonwood Pass traverses appear open to improving it. More than anyone the citizens of those counties have borne the brunt from the closures whether it has been reduced business during the height of the tourist season, fuel shortages, product and package delays, or higher prices for goods.
In moving forward and recognizing the importance of I-70 to not only our state but the region and nation as a whole, the funds to pay for improving Cottonwood Pass should not be borne solely by the state. The federal government should bear some if not the greater share of the costs for both restoring and stabilizing I-70 through Glenwood Canyon and also providing funds for the detour.
The time for considering a reasonable detour around Glenwood Canyon is long overdue. Let’s not wait until the next disaster before we begin to work on one.
Greg Fulton is the president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which represents over 600 companies directly involved in or affiliated with trucking in Colorado.