The forced I-70 eastbound exit at mile-marker 116 in Glenwood Springs is pictured. Because of the ongoing Glenwood Canyon closure, eastbound traffic must exit in West Rifle (mile-marker 87) onto U.S. Highway 6, but motorists bound for Glenwood Springs and the Roaring Fork Valley may re-enter the interstate in Rifle and proceed 27 miles to the last cut-off point at exit 116. The Colorado Department of Transportation recommends that other eastbound traffic, such as motorists heading to Denver, use a northern route from Rifle to Craig along State Highway 13.
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said Tuesday the Colorado National Guard was briefly considered to help local authorities manage increased traffic on Independence Pass caused by the Interstate 70 closure at Glenwood Canyon.
The national guard already is helping at Cottonwood Pass, which runs from the Cattle Creek area off Highway 82 just south of Glenwood Springs all the way to the Gypsum area and I-70, authorities confirmed. Following a short conversation involving Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, state highway officials and others, the guard’s presence was deemed unnecessary on Independence Pass, Peacock told county commissioners during a work session Tuesday afternoon.
Instead of using national guard personnel, CDOT contractors will begin managing traffic flow east of Aspen on Highway 82. Traffic control points will be set up on both sides of the pass, in Pitkin and Lake counties, to monitor the situation and to be on the lookout for oversized vehicles, Peacock said.
Beginning today, the Colorado Department of Transportation will begin building a pad on the north side of Interstate 70 at mile-marker 123 in Glenwood Canyon for placement of “super sacks” filled with sand. “The goal is to place 60 super sacks …. to help protect against future debris flows in that area,” CDOT says in a Tuesday news release.
Vehicles longer than 35 feet are banned from using Independence Pass at all times, by state law, and over the years several tractor-trailers have gotten stuck in the area of the pass on the Pitkin County side known as “the narrows.” Traffic signal devices were installed in that one-lane section of the roadway last week because many motorists were having trouble navigating it and alternating its use with motorists coming from the opposite direction.
Last week, Gov. Jared Polis requested $116 million in federal emergency funds from the Biden Administration through a disaster declaration that involves I-70 through Glenwood Canyon, along with Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties. Mudslides, debris flow and rockfalls fell on I-70 in Glenwood Canyon on the evening of July 29, in the area of the Grizzly Creek burn scar, causing severe damage to the roadway and closing access to eastbound and westbound travelers.
Peacock told commissioners that 10%, or $11.6 million, of the governor’s funding request has been approved. “The good news today, they did get the first 10% awarded,” he said.
He said the county also is requesting, in addition to traffic monitors, that CDOT’s contractor provide a courtesy patrol that will give daytime assistance to motorists on Independence Pass, such as those that might break down for whatever reason.
“We hope to hear back on that later this week,” Peacock said. “We hope the funding that is being awarded will help facilitate that.”
Overall, the federal funds have several uses, he said, including: removing I-70 debris, addressing impacts on alternate routes (including Independence and Cottonwood passes), implementing supplemental traffic control systems, repairing areas of highway damage and creating opportunities for geohazard mitigation to prevent future incidents.
“I think the fact that the first 10% was awarded is a good sign for the [federal government] to award the rest,” Peacock said.
He added that the county is waiting for more information from CDOT’s incident command structure with regard to updated timelines for debris removal and repairs to I-70.
“It does sound like a single lane could be open within weeks. We are aware that the governor has requested that plans be made such that traffic is restored through the canyon prior to ski season,” Peacock said.
“Traffic management is probably the main issue in our valley,” the county manager said.
DiSalvo said the potential deployment of the national guard at Independence Pass came up during a “brainstorming” session and no longer is part of the ongoing discussion, at least for now.
He said the sheriff’s office has many duties throughout the county and cannot staff the pass, which falls under CDOT’s jurisdiction, at the level that it needs. Eastbound and westbound motorists have been using the pass since July 30 as a way of skirting CDOT’s suggested northern route, which runs from Silverthorne to Kremmling to Steamboat Springs to Craig to Rifle.
DiSalvo said traffic on the pass was relatively light on Monday and Tuesday.
“I’m glad we didn’t have to use them,” he said of the guard.
Traffic issues tend to be worse on Cottonwood Pass because it’s not as well-developed as Independence Pass, DiSalvo said. There are intense curves and switchbacks, and some sections of the Eagle County roadway are not even paved.
According to a taped message from Eagle County’s road and bridge department, Cottonwood Pass was open as of 7 p.m. Tuesday. Like Independence Pass, there is a 35-foot length restriction for all vehicles.
In a Tuesday news release, Gov. Polis hailed the release of federal funding as an important step toward restoring the vital section of interstate to recreational and commercial use.
“We are thrilled to have such close coordination with our federal partners to ensure federal resources are quickly on their way to Colorado,” he said in a prepared statement. “Crews and staff across state government are working in all-hands-on-deck mode to deal with the devastating damage to Glenwood Canyon and I-70, and having the same level of support from federal partners at the Federal Highway Administration ensures we can keep working at a rapid pace to restore this economic and recreation highway.”