Completion of ‘Final Link’ comes up on 20 years
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Floyd Diemoz had gotten used to being given a short amount of time to get his point across when the grand opening of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon rolled around on Oct. 14, 1992.
Asked by Lew Sturm, then the district engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), to be the first speaker at the event, Diemoz wondered how long he’d have to share his 29 years of history dealing with the Glenwood Canyon question.
“He said, ‘Floyd, you get 10 minutes and feel free to use all of it,'” Diemoz said in that speech 20 years ago inside the still-auto-free Hanging Lake Tunnels.
Diemoz recalled the quote again last weekend at the Hotel Colorado, when he repeated the speech during a reunion of Glenwood Canyon highway designers, planners, engineers, contractors, project managers, local citizens and others.
His own “short” history had begun in 1963 when the first public hearings were held to determine whether the I-70 project should take the new four-lane interstate highway through Glenwood Canyon, over Cottonwood Pass to the south, or over the Flat Tops to the north.
That decision started to evolve the next year when the No Name Tunnels were built. A few years later, construction began on the actual highway from Glenwood Springs to the new tunnels heading east into the mouth of Glenwood Canyon and old U.S. Highway 6.
It was during that construction, which left massive scars and unattractive erosion-control features in its wake, when many local citizens stood up and said “no way.”
The same type of cut-and-fill construction would not be acceptable through the remainder of the pristine canyon, they said.
Colorado’s newly formed environmental commission said a four-lane highway would completely destroy the canyon’s delicate environment and recreational amenities. The commission recommended one of the other routes be used instead.
“Even the Federal Department of Transportation said it’s uncertain whether a satisfactory design can be developed that preserves the existing environmental values of Glenwood Canyon,” Diemoz recalled in his speech.
“The response from the road building industry to the critics was even more astounding,” he said. “They declared that they are the experts, and it was foolish to suggest that massive cuts and fills should not be used.”
But Diemoz and a band of locals who were eventually appointed to serve on the local citizens advisory committee felt there could be a middle ground.
Working with the Glenwood Springs Chamber, they produced a 22-minute film in 1971 that endorsed Glenwood Canyon as the most logical route. But it also stressed the importance of going above and beyond to use design and construction techniques, similar to those being used in Europe at the time, that would preserve the canyon’s beauty.
“We showed that film to the folks at the division of highways, and it was really their response to the film that resulted in what you see out there today,” Diemoz said in an interview after last week’s reunion. “That film provided the solution, and changed everything.”
Driving through Glenwood Canyon on I-70 today, it’s hard to picture the days of a congested and dangerous two-lane U.S. Highway 6, which followed the route of the 1902 Taylor State Road.
Some 13 years of construction, from the late 1970s until 1992, followed many prior years of planning and intense debate.
On Oct. 14, 1992, the $480 million stretch of I-70, one of the nation’s grandest engineering feats, opened to motorists.
“What may be the ‘crown jewel’ of the interstate highway system, this 12-mile wonder could not have taken shape without the intense process that was driven by a steadfast desire on the part of all participants to achieve excellence,” CDOT project officials declared in an October 1992 special section published by the Glenwood Post, “Glenwood Canyon – The Final Link.”
From the time that first roadway was built across the river from the railroad, Glenwood Canyon was seen as the gateway to Glenwood Springs’ many recreational amenities.
“Glenwood Canyon’s wonders, both natural and manmade, are astonishing,” said Lisa Langer, the current vice president of tourism marketing for the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association.
“Since its completion 20 years ago, Glenwood Canyon has become a place where motorists can take a respite on their journey and recreationists can hike, view wildlife, cycle, inline skate, fish, raft, canoe, kayak or picnic in the unparalleled beauty of the canyon,” she said.
The canyon itself was enhanced as a recreational amenity through the construction of four rest areas, at No Name, Grizzly Creek, Hanging Lake and Bair Ranch, which provide river and trail access. A separate bike path also parallels the highway and Colorado River through the entire 12.5-mile stretch.
The highway construction itself essentially involved constructing two roadways, one on top of the other in places.
The old Highway 6 road bed was used for the eastbound lanes, while the westbound lanes were built using a series of 40 bridges and two long viaducts. The suspended viaducts had to be pieced together in pre-cast segments built off-site and lowered into place using a French-made gantry crane.
The middle section of the canyon project, where the popular Hanging Lake trailhead is located, was one of the most impressive feats. Instead of taking the new interstate highway through that stretch, it was left as a traffic-free zone, with the exception of the Hanging Lake Rest Area parking lot.
Interstate traffic was instead taken through the twin Hanging Lake Tunnels on the south side of the Colorado River. Inside those tunnels is a state-of-the art traffic control center and maintenance facility. From there, CDOT employees monitor road conditions and traffic, alerting travelers to weather conditions and other unexpected circumstances using the overhead informational signs along the roadway.
Glenwood Canyon has been honored for its accomplishments in planning, sensitive design, management and construction, winning more than 30 awards including the 1993 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Glenwood Canyon Project also ushered in a new generation of highway engineers, planners and project managers in their 20s and 30s who were just getting their feet wet in the world of high-tech, large-scale highway construction.
People like Joe Elsen, 22 at the time he began in 1983, who started on a survey crew and quickly worked his way up to project engineer overseeing different aspects of the project; Joe Kracum, who spent eight years on the project as a consulting engineer starting in 1985 when he was 34; and Ralph Trapani, who at just 28 years of age was hired by CDOT in 1980 to be the overall project manager.
All three attended last week’s Glenwood Canyon reunion, along with more than 50 others who had been involved on the project in some way.
“I was still an engineer in training when they brought me onto the project,” Trapani said in an interview following the reunion. “I always say that, had I known then what I learned along the way and what I know now, I may never have taken the job.
“But it was also probably good to be young and enthusiastic, and not see all the obstacles on a project like that,” he said.
“It was a wild time,” said Elsen. “There was a lot of camaraderie, and it was just a great place to work and to learn. We’d also have friendly little competitions to keep things interesting.”
Kracum was the project’s consulting engineer in charge of “claims avoidance.” Simply stated, it meant he had to work as the liaison between CDOT and the contractors on the project to make sure no conflicts arose and that things remained on schedule.
“There was a lot of new technology being used, so getting from design to construction was challenging at times,” said Kracum, who had worked as a mining engineer in the 1970s and early ’80s before moving into highway construction work.
“It was a learning process for all of us,” he said.
Trapani had been involved on the Vail Pass project, which had its own challenges. But Glenwood Canyon was very different.
“The biggest challenge was putting four lanes of highway and a bike path through the narrow confines of the canyon,” Trapani said.
Healing the canyon
The bike path in particular was both a challenge and an inspiration for Trapani, who remains an active bicyclist today at age 60.
“The bike path was well-planned as part of the mitigation for recreation users going back to the late 1970s,” he said. “With Highway 6, there were about 60 pullouts along the river that had to disappear and be replaced with some type of access.
“And there weren’t any shoulders on Highway 6 for bicycles, so we decided we did not want to do that again,” he said.
Building a path to run the length of the canyon, connecting four recreation-oriented rest areas with dedicated boat launches for rafters and other river users became the solution.
“It was all part of a healing process for the canyon,” Trapani said. “We were able to take what had been destroyed by previous highway construction practices, and we used that scar to build the new highway and heal the canyon.”
Even the recreation and conservation groups who brought a federal lawsuit against state and federal highway officials to try to halt the project eventually came around to recognize the accomplishment, he said.
“One of the most compelling things was the role reversal that occurred,” Trapani said. “Engineers started thinking about the environment, and environmentalists started thinking about how to make a safe highway.”
Traffic control during the construction also fell under Trapani’s oversight. Instead of hiring out traffic control to the lowest bidder, CDOT officials decided to hire its own flaggers and traffic control managers internally.
With the regular 30-minute delays for motorists who had to be escorted through one-lane stretches during the construction, a personal touch was important, Trapani said.
“It was one of the first projects in America where the integrity of traffic control and management was treated as a professional service,” he said.
Trapani notes that the Glenwood Canyon project opened doors for him and other engineers and highway designers that might not have been available otherwise.
He went on to become project manager for the State Highway 82 four-lane project through Snowmass Canyon and around Shale Bluffs from Basalt to Aspen. Trapani now works for the Parsons Transportation Group overseeing projects throughout the region.
“I’ve essentially worked on the I-70 corridor my entire career,” he said.
Elsen also went on to work on the Highway 82 project in Snowmass Canyon, where many of the same construction techniques that were used in Glenwood Canyon were employed.
Elsen is now back with CDOT, working as one of the lead engineers on the Grand Avenue Bridge project in Glenwood Springs.
His 11 years in Glenwood Canyon will always be special, Elsen said.
“I had always wanted to come out to western Colorado, and that project gave me the opportunity,” he said. “I just always remember one day looking down at the river from the construction site and there was a bull elk standing in the middle of the river. I just thought, wow, what a special place, and how fortunate I was to be there.”
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There are a few extra stories being shared around the tables at the Village Smithy restaurant in Carbondale this week following the death of restaurant founder and longtime community leader Chris Chacos.