GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Businesses whose bottom line could be harmed during the reconstruction of the Grand Avenue Bridge in downtown Glenwood Springs won't be eligible to receive damages from the state, but local business groups hope to minimize any losses through promotional events or other means. That was just one of the many topics discussed during a forum on the proposed reconstruction of the Grand Avenue Bridge Thursday night.The event, attended by about 80 citizens and local elected officials, followed a Wednesday open house on bridge design sponsored by the Colorado Department of Transportation. The Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association organized the Issues & Answers Night held Thursday, and it put project officials on the hot seat by comparison. Those officials - including two project engineers, two business group representatives, and a downtown building owner - answered 31 questions from citizens on topics ranging from where the $59 million in state bridge reconstruction money will come from (a surcharge on car registration fees) to which agency gives the project its final approval (the Federal Highway Administration). "We make a recommendation to them, but they make the final decision, said Joe Elsen, CDOT Region 3 project engineer, who is overseeing the project. "If the community is really not behind the project, they will see that." Because the bridge project involves federal money, it is subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a lengthy process that is expected to take well over a year to complete. Consultants would examine the noise, air quality, traffic and other impacts of the project, and a "finding of no significant impact" is required to proceed. CDOT has singled out the bridge for reconstruction due to its age and structural deficiencies. Yet the project has been controversial, both for its potential impact on the downtown core during construction and because some believe the agency's focus should be on re-aligning Highway 82 to avoid downtown Glenwood, rather than revamping the bridge. Members of that group, an ad-hoc coalition called "Save Grand Avenue," want to launch a formal effort to realign the highway and revitalize downtown. Elsen has long maintained that the bridge replacement and a highway realignment are two very different projects, a point that he reiterated Thursday. "There are two needs for this project: to address structural deficiencies with the bridge and improve the lanes, and to connect the downtown to the northern side of town," he said. "Relocation of Highway 82 obviously will have a different purpose and need." Elsen noted that moving the highway would be a far more intensive process, involving stakeholders such as the Roaring Fork Transit Authority and federal agencies, plus it would affect a larger geographic area and require a more extensive review.
If the so-called Alternative 3 preferred alignment of the new bridge goes forward, the biggest change would occur along Sixth Street between Pine and Laurel, on the north side of the Colorado River. That alignment, which has been endorsed by CDOT, the Glenwood Springs City Council, the Garfield Board of County Commissioners, and other groups, would carry traffic from Grand Avenue across the river and curve west over the Hot Springs parking lot to a reconfigured intersection at Sixth and Laurel, near the Exit 116 interchange.That would leave the two blocks of Sixth Street with much less traffic, and open them up for more pedestrian-friendly landscaping. "Some sketches we did in July suggested wider sidewalks and narrower streets," said Leslie Bethel, executive director of the Glenwood Springs Downtown Development Authority. "There is the opportunity for North Glenwood to have very much of a village pedestrian feel," she said. "It would have just 20 percent of the cars that travel those blocks today to reach the existing Grand Avenue bridge." Craig Gaskill, a consulting engineer on the bridge project, noted that the intersection of Sixth and Laurel, which some refer to as "malfunction junction," could also be redesigned. "Right now, you may wait as much as 160 seconds as a pedestrian to cross there," he said. A revamping would narrow the intersection and improve traffic flow. The current bridge design would include other pedestrian improvements, according to Elsen, including widening the pedestrian walkway from 10 feet to 20, and possibly running paths under the bridge on the north side to connect to Two Rivers park.
Building a new bridge would take about two years, according to Gaskill, and the existing bridge would remain open for most of that time. For about two months, however, the bridge would close for demolition, and all traffic heading down Highway 82 to north Glenwood and I-70 would need to be detoured on Midland Avenue. That road, which runs along the west side of the Roaring Fork River, has homes along much of its span. In the questions posed Thursday, resident raised concerns about the air quality, noise and other impacts that would come with increased traffic volume during the detour period.Engineers acknowledged that those impacts could be real, although the final demolition would take place during spring or fall, when area traffic is at its lowest. "I would guess that it will go from 11 minutes to get through Glenwood to 20-25 minutes during that time," said Gaskill. Preliminary studies suggest that re-routing traffic along Midland could put up to 2,600 vehicles per hour on that road during peak times, which is up to double or triple current peak levels. Yet Gaskill said that the jump in traffic would probably discourage some people from driving. That occurred in Los Angeles last July when officials there closed the Highway 405 freeway temporarily and saw a 95 percent reduction in traffic. Central to that effort was what Gaskill called "a good public information campaign," to make residents aware of bus service and discourage non-essential trips in the bridge demolition phase.