Eagle commuters feeling pain of Grand Avenue bridge construction
Eagle Valley Enterprise
EAGLE COUNTY — Michelle Friedman, of Eagle, began a new job with a Glenwood Springs-based business in late June, but yesterday was the first time she had to brave the Grand Avenue bridge construction zone.
She left her Eagle home at 5:50 a.m. and arrived at work at 7:15 a.m. It took her 25 minutes to get from the Interstate 70 off ramp to the roundabout on the north side of the highway.
While the traffic was bad, Friedman was actually expecting it to be worse. That’s not to say she relishes the idea of making the trip into town every day.
“I am going to try my darnedest to just come in to the office on Tuesdays,” she said. “I am just going to try to avoid the construction.”
That’s a good plan, according to Tom Newland, of the Colorado Department of Transportation. In the weeks leading up to the Grand Avenue Bridge closure, one of CDOT’s top tips for weathering the massive construction project was to telecommute or work from an alternative location.
But for those folks who can’t avoid the bridge construction detour, Newland said commuting habits seem to be changing.
A 95-day headache
The Grand Avenue bridge — which spans the Colorado River and I-70 and is the primary access to downtown Glenwood Springs — is the largest infrastructure project on the Western Slope in 25 years. Construction is now in the third of five phases, as crews are working to replace the more than five-decade-old traffic bridge. That closure, which began Aug. 14, will last a total of 95 days, during which time the contractor will complete demolition of the old structure and construction of the new bridge. Sometime around Thanksgiving, the new bridge will open with one-lane traffic in each direction.
“The first two days were really bad. We had backups of two hours or so,” Newland said. “Then people started changing their habits.”
To cope with the bridge project, CDOT set a 35 percent traffic reduction goal — urging motorists to use mass transit, form car pools, change work hours or telecommute. Newland said that after seeing the traffic impact last Monday and Tuesday, motorists seem to be following that advice. He noted that ridership on Roaring Fork Transit Authority buses is up and overall traffic is down.
Newland said by Friday of last week, delay time had been reduced to about a half hour.
“And over the weekend, there were no backups, just some traffic congestion,” he said.
On Monday, Newland said motorists apparently decided to hit the road earlier, with backups starting around 6 a.m. Although the traffic backups started earlier this week, Newland said they didn’t build to be as troublesome as they were last week.
“People are getting used to how it goes,” he said.
Now motorists need to prepare themselves to cope with the next big challenges.
Labor Day and Back to School
A travel analyst for TurnKey Vacation Rentals sent out a list of the Top 10 Labor Day travel destinations this week. The Colorado Rocky Mountains are listed as No. 1 on that list, with Aspen listed at No. 5. That could be a challenge, because most of the motorists who want to get to Aspen need to get through Glenwood first.
Newland also noted that Glenwood Springs students will head back to their classrooms after the Labor Day holiday, meaning school buses and parents will be contributing to the traffic starting next week.
“We are still figuring out the detour, for sure,” he said.
The good news for everyone is that the project is still proceeding on schedule, even after a highly publicized accident last week. A video showing the unexpected collapse of a large section of the old Grand Avenue bridge lit up the internet last week.
“It was fortunate that no real damage was done and no one was injured,” Newland said. “We really haven’t lost any time, either.”
This week, crews removed the old bridge girders from over I-70, Newland said.
Some Eagle County commuters are using Cottonwood Pass as an alternate route during the bridge construction. The route is a narrow, gravel county road that runs from south of Gypsum to west Glenwood.
Traffic has picked up on Cottonwood Pass since the Grand Avenue bridge closure. According to Eagle County Communications Director Kris Friel, a traffic counter placed in the area last Wednesday showed between 6 and 8 a.m. there were 127 total cars on the road. Of that number, 113 were traveling westbound.
“But Cottonwood Pass, knock on wood, has been running pretty smoothly,” Friel said.
While it does provide an alternate way to get to Glenwood, the road’s limitations mean it is a bad choice for tractor-trailers or other large vehicles. A series of warning signs and variable message boards located near the Gypsum entrance proclaim that fact.
Friel added the posted speed limit on Cottonwood Pass is 25 mph, and people who drive it know to respect that rule.
“Even if you are familiar with Cottonwood Pass, other people on the road may not be,” she said.
The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office stepped up patrols in the area this past week, Friel said, to make sure motorists were complying with the speed limits and vehicle limitations.
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CenturyLink was hit with a nationwide outage Thursday morning, and the issue has spread to Eagle and Garfield Counties, affecting local businesses and schools.