Garfield County Commission, CDOT officials address improvements to Cottonwood Pass

Traffic makes its way over Cottonwood Pass between Glenwood Springs and Gyspum in this 2021 photo.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

An ongoing effort to improve Cottonwood Pass, a popular alternative route when Interstate 70 closes through Glenwood Canyon, was addressed by Garfield County commissioners and Colorado Department of Transportation officials on Monday.

CDOT Program Engineer Karen Berdoulay highlighted eight of 14 possible safety improvement spots along Cottonwood Pass in Garfield County, which are identified through a 2022 feasibility study. Many of the spots, which account for 14% of the entire corridor, either call for widening, smoothing curves or improving sight distances.

CDOT also identified six additional Cottonwood Pass improvement spots in Eagle County, including improvements to Blue Hill. The improvements to this narrow, steep segment of roadway could cost up to $60 million, Berdoulay estimated Monday.

“That really was the goal of this project, is to identify ways to improve safety at the critical areas that were identified by the counties,” Berdoulay said. “We also learned it’s very important for the stakeholders to respect the corridor character. It was not our goal to go through and design highway improvements to meet CDOT standards, for example, or even county standards. It was really trying to maintain the rural feel of the road, minimize impacts to private property and mitigate visual impacts for improvements.”

The Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020 and its massive ensuing debris slides in 2021 regularly diverted motorists from Interstate 70 onto Cottonwood Pass, a non-advertised detour that runs southwest of Gypsum through Eagle County and on through Garfield County to Colorado Highway 82.

Colorado Department of Transportation traffic numbers show average traffic jumped more than nine times the regular amount when Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon closed. Cottonwood Pass in 2021 typically saw an average of 400 vehicles per day, which increased to 3,700 during the debris slides.

For Garfield County, each of the eight possible improvement locations have a significantly less price tag than eyed along Cottonwood Pass in Eagle County. Improvement costs for Garfield County range from $300,000 to about $3 million.

The biggest ticket item is to spend $3 million to modify and realign the intersection of Cattle Creek and Catherine Store roads. Berdoulay said the modification aims to mitigate driver confusion and navigation.

Ever since an inundated Cottonwood Pass prompted a feasibility study, however, there has been pushback against improvements by some area residents. Some argue Cottonwood Pass improvements may have an opposite impact on safety.

“The concerns really of the public on Catherine Store Road were that, if any of these improvements were made, it was going to create the opportunity for greater speeding,” Karen Moculeski, president of the Keep Missouri Heights Rural organization, said Monday.

CDOT currently seeks state and federal grants for improvements to both Glenwood Canyon and Cottonwood Pass, Berdoulay said. If successful, the grants will go to Eagle County and improvements will be constructed by 2030.

On Tuesday, Garfield and Eagle County commissioners met to further address possible Cottonwood Pass improvements. 

“Our priority here is to support Eagle County on Blue Hill,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said on Monday. “Until that happens, Cottonwood Pass remains as it is today.”

Jankovsky added, “The first improvements need to happen in Eagle County.”

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