Confab opens talks on Cottonwood Pass upgrade
If Cottonwood Pass is to become anything more than a primitive seasonal route through the high country between Garfield and Eagle counties that could serve as an alternative to Interstate 70, it will take a willing coalition of area governments to pull it off.
That was the consensus of a group of county and municipal government officials at a Wednesday meeting hosted by regional staffers from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Talk of upgrading the 26.5-mile stretch of Garfield and Eagle county road and maintaining it for year-round use resurfaced this past winter after I-70 through Glenwood Canyon was closed for six days straight because of a massive rockslide.
The closure resulted in a lengthy detour of interstate traffic via U.S. 40 to the north or U.S. 50 to the south, well away from Glenwood Springs and the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley.
That kept people from getting to and from jobs on the other side of Glenwood Canyon, and prevented visitors from even getting to the Roaring Fork Valley, along with other disruptions in commerce.
While the impacts associated with the Grand Avenue bridge construction have been manageable, the multiday closure of I-70 was “devastating,” said Andrew Gorgey, the acting city manager for Glenwood Springs.
“It really showed us how huge a lifeline that is for our economy, which depends on that interstate traffic,” he said.
Upgrading Cottonwood Pass would mostly involve work on the roughly 15-mile length of road on the Eagle County side leading into Gypsum.
It’s been talked about for many years, Gorgey noted, but it’s always come down to the cost and who pays for what. The city and Garfield County and other valley governments would most likely be willing to chip in, he said.
Cottonwood Pass was actually studied by state and federal highway officials as a possible route for the expansion of I-70 in the early 1970s before the Glenwood Canyon alignment was chosen.
That decision mostly came down to the fact that building a four-lane, median-separated interstate highway over Cottonwood Pass would have involved more land acquisition and had more geologic and environmental constraints, said Mike Vanderhoof, CDOT Region 3 planning and environmental manager.
What’s being contemplated now would be somewhat less than an interstate highway, Glenwood Springs Mayor Mike Gamba said.
He suggested a basic chip-seal or even partial gravel surface with 11-foot travel lanes and a four-foot shoulder that could be maintained through the winter but would prohibit large truck traffic is all that’s needed.
Eagle County conducted an preliminary analysis of just such an upgrade in 2010 and came up with a cost of $48 million to do the work. A wider surface with 12-foot lanes and six-foot shoulders would have cost about $66 million.
Those cost estimates are probably on the low end, even factoring in inflation over that last five years, Eagle County Engineer Eva Wilson said.
The estimates also don’t consider operation and maintenances cost, including winter snow plowing, Eagle County Manager Brent McFall said.
“If Cottonwood Pass is a reasonable alternative route, we also have to consider how it’s going to be used,” he said, noting that traffic increases and impacts on residents who live along the lower portion of the road and in Gypsum would need to be weighed.
Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan said that even for the county to commit to a portion of the cost to upgrade the road might be a stretch, given other priorities in the county.
“Money is tight, and we have a hard time coming up with funds for some of the priority projects we’ve been working on for a long time,” she said.
Garfield County Commissioner John Martin offered that, even if Cottonwood Pass is improved for year-round use, an outlet on the Garfield County side besides Cattle Creek Road is needed.
Routing traffic to an uncontrolled intersection on Highway 82 is probably not the desired alternative, he said, suggesting that road improvements through Missouri Heights to the El Jebel traffic light on 82 should be considered.
“We also need to bring the real gorilla into the room, which is Aspen,” Martin said, noting that the bulk of traffic coming from I-70 onto Highway 82 is headed to Aspen. “We’re going to have to bring everybody into this or it’s not going to happen.”
Vanderhoof and Regional Transportation Commissioner Dave Eller said the state will continue to gauge interest among the area governments to do a feasibility study for the route.
Such a “purpose and need” study would also have to look at other alternatives and would involve the public, Vanderhoof said.
Eller estimated the cost to do the study would be in the range of $300,000 .
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AS OF TUESDAY, MAY 24, 2022