After weeks of closure, crews in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado are hoping to partially reopen the state’s Interstate 70 as soon as Saturday, August 14, 2021 — a major step in reopening the roadway that has been closed since major mudslides caused significant damage on July 31, 2021.
An August 2, 2021, announcement from Colorado Governor Jared Polis had noted that the state’s Interstate 70 could be closed for weeks after the mudslides had caused damage too significant to handle quickly.
“My directive to CDOT is to reopen [Interstate 70] as quickly as possible,” Polis said, “with at least some model for the flow of traffic — even one lane each direction — and then to hopefully restore full functionality by ski season to Glenwood Canyon.”
According to Colorado state officials, the damage has been significant — though she declined to estimate the full amount, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) Director Shoshana Lew noted that “It’s a very grave situation in Glenwood Canyon right now,” and that the damage may cost the state tens of millions of dollars in new construction.
However, the process was seen to likely be a difficult project for the state to complete, as Polis added at the time that “We are taking immediate action to rebuild the damaged sections as soon as possible, but we won’t be fully aware of the extent of the damage until the debris is cleared…We’re looking at a few days to weeks, and more likely getting into the weeks category.”
Interstate 70 is already having work done elsewhere in Colorado, as well, ensuring that the highway will have significant improvements in the near future.
The $1.2 billion Central 70 project being helmed by Kiewit Meridiam Partners, which will reconstruct a 10-mile stretch of the interstate in Denver, is still scheduled for completion in late 2022 and 2023.
Construction suspended on Highway 50 to alleviate delays
In order to alleviate the situation with Interstate 70, CDOT officials opened US Highway 50 between Gunnison, Colorado, and Montrose, Colorado. The highway had been closed often since spring 2021 as part of the Little Blue Canyon Improvement project.
Though this option allows for more travel in the state, it also causes more problems for construction companies, as contractors and workers don’t know when they’ll be allowed to resume work on the Little Blue Canyon project.
Kathleen Wanatowicz, public information manager for the Little Blue Creek Canyon Improvement Project, noted that the closure of Interstate 70 isn’t a guaranteed work stoppage for Highway 50.
“If there is an extended period of time in which I-70 closes, we work very closely with CDOT to then determine, does US 50 open?…So it’s not a given that when the canyon closes, US 50 opens,” Wanatowicz said.
The project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2022, has contractors eager to resume work, as development is still being done in some parts of the area. “Inside the canyon we’re still doing the crane operations with the rock blasting, scaling and drilling,” Wanatowicz added. “A new second crane is arriving as well. The crane will be drilling just west of the existing bridge.”
Issues may lead to significant new construction to keep problems from arising in the future
In order to prevent future issues — and fix the current slate of problems — Colorado’s state government made a major request to the US Department of Transportation for $116 million in emergency aid, with an additional request that $11.6 million be sent immediately.
“While Coloradans understand the magnitude of destruction, the disruption to people’s lives and livelihoods grows as the interstate remains closed,” Governor Polis and CDOT Director Lew wrote in their request to USDOT. “Federal support, including quick release of funds, will greatly assist our efforts to restore functionality to the interstate and allow people to have the connectivity they rely on.”
According to Governor Polis, nearly half of the $116 million that Colorado is seeking would be spent on removing debris and repairing the interstate, with $50 million going towards a study of the highway’s resiliency and $10 million allocated for improving state highways that are serving as detours in the current disaster.
As part of this, local governments are also looking to upgrade their roads to serve as alternatives for the interstate. When talking about the Cottonwood Pass — a seasonal road that connects parts of the state’s Eagle County to Roaring Fork Valley, and has been previously floated as an alternative route to Interstate 70 — Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky noted that “The political will could be there now…You have both counties and the state in favor of looking at this. I think it is a sea change.”
Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll noted that these improvements would be necessary, even though CDOT has not offered its support for such upgrades in the past: “We do need to all kind of rally behind and get and support something that’s far greater than what we have now…this isn’t the last time we’re going to see Glenwood Canyon crippled.”
Even though CDOT hasn’t always supported these alternative routes, state officials may be more open in the near future. CDOT Director Lew noted that if it secured the requested federal funding, the agency would use some of it to fortify routes such as Cottonwood Pass.
However, Lew also reinforced the idea that Interstate 70 will be the state’s main goal in terms of construction, adding that “Getting I-70 open and functional as soon as possible is our mandate from the governor and our highest priority.”