Cottonwood Pass improvement design project nearly finished, but funding is uncertain
Cottonwood Pass has always been seen as a local alternative when Interstate 70 closes through Glenwood Canyon. But closures in both 2020 and 2021 brought far more traffic to the rural road.
Those lengthy closures, due to 2020’s Grizzly Creek Fire and massive mudslides in the summer of 2021, have drawn serious attention from the Colorado Department of Transportation and staff in Garfield and Eagle counties.
The Eagle County Board of Commissioners recently heard a briefing on the progress made to make the road safer, but not a full alternative to the interstate.
Karen Berdoulay is the regional engineer for the state transportation department. Berdoulay told the commissioners that improvements have been identified in 14 locations in the two counties, accounting for about 14% of the corridor’s length.
The identified work is in place with well-known safety issues, from smoothing curves to widening stretches to limit or eliminate sideswipe accidents.
Berdoulay said while Cottonwood Pass isn’t advertised as a detour, people still find it, in large part to avoid detours to the north and south that add hours and hundreds of miles to a trip from Grand Junction to Denver.
Some of the proposed work will involve buying road right of way, but there isn’t much property needed.
For instance, one identified site could require about a half-acre of right of way to improve curves at a cost of about $1 million.
But even in a design intended to limit improvements, the work will be expensive. One stretch — one of the higher-priority areas — would require the construction of a retaining wall. That could be a $4 million job.
The most expensive proposal is on Blue Hill, a narrow, steep segment of the road. A previous estimate to entirely rebuild that stretch came with an estimated price tag of more than $350 million. The current, scaled-back idea could still cost more than $55 million.
While the road would remain the responsibility of the two counties, Berdoulay said some state and federal money could be available.
Berdoulay said there’s “a little” money available for construction, or for paying the costs counties incur for flagging and stopping heavy trucks from using the road.
Any improvements to the road could be controversial with local residents. At a March information session in Gypsum, some residents said they’re concerned that improvements to the road could create more problems, particularly regarding speed and the number of vehicles driving the pass.
“This will remain a county road,” Commissioner Matt Scherr said, adding that county officials are working with the people who create mapping phone apps to not give Cottonwood Pass as an option when the canyon closes.
“The county’s interest is safety,” Scherr added. “We’re looking at (funding) to make our road safer.”
County Engineer Ben Gerdes said the 2021 canyon closure that sparked the current effort was the third major closure of that road segment in the 16 years he’s worked for the county. Those occasional closures will continue, Gerdes added. The ultimate goal is to allow safe transit for people who live on one side of the canyon and work on the other. Those people range from school teachers to first responders, Gerdes noted.
Jason Smith, a regional director for the transportation department, told the commissioners the state is looking at what can be done in the canyon for fewer, shorter road closures.
Berdoulay said the plan is expected to be finalized later this month. If funding comes through, Smith said “the press will be on” to get to work.
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