Traffic volume big part of Independence Pass closure, sheriff says; travelers flood backcountry roads
CDOT recommends that through traffic on I-70 use a southern detour route, due to construction on commonly used northern alternate routes.
- WESTBOUND: Denver metro area motorists can travel on US 285 to US 50, and continue west to Grand Junction. Travelers on I-70 can use CO 9 to US 285 south to US 50, or use CO 91 southwest to US 24 to US 50.
- EASTBOUND: Motorists traveling from Grand Junction can use US 50 east to US 285 and continue to Denver. Motorists headed to areas west of Denver can also use the westbound detour in reverse.
For residents and businesses north of I-70, the following alternate routes are best:
- WESTBOUND: Motorists can connect to US 40 via CO 9 or CO 131. To continue to Grand Junction, take CO 139 south to I-70. CDOT advises commercial traffic to use CO 9 instead of CO 131, for safety purposes. Please note that while CO 13 is open at this time, it is not a recommended detour due to construction. Oversize commercial vehicles are not allowed on CO 13 due to construction.
EASTBOUND: Near Fruita, motorists can travel north on CO 139 to US 40, then south on CO 131 or CO 9, returning to I-70. As stated above, CO 13 is not recommended due to construction.
Travelers who shunned the state’s recommended travel routes because of the Glenwood Canyon closure and instead opted for GPS and Google Maps-recommended shortcuts continued to cause problems on less-traveled roads Thursday.
“It’s kind of like a game of whack-a-mole,” Amber Barrett with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday. “You close one road and another one becomes a problem. One day it was Cottonwood (Pass), one day it was Independence Pass, then Crooked Creek or Thomasville Road 400.
“These are basically trails, not roads. And now that the roads are trashed, four-wheel-drive trucks are getting stuck.”
In short, dirt and gravel roads not designed to handle massive volumes of cars and trucks have been overrun.
Cottonwood Pass, which connects from Gypsum to south of Glenwood Springs, was closed Thursday. And late Thursday, Eagle County officials indefinitely closed the Eagle-Thomasville Road, which is up the Fryingpan Valley east of Basalt, in both directions after multiple accidents occurred. The road goes to Sylvan Lake and then into Eagle, which is west of Vail on Interstate 70, which has been closed since Monday with the Grizzly Creek Fire started.
Barrett said thousands of vehicles have been traveling over the roads in the past two days.
“The message is to not trust your GPS maps as they are creating dangerous situations up on the mountain passes,” she said.
State transportation officials, Gov. Jared Polis and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office closed Independence Pass on Wednesday after it was overrun with both semi-trucks — which aren’t allowed anytime on the narrow, winding road — as well as huge amounts of passenger car traffic, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said.
Officials initially indicated that semi-trucks were mainly to blame for the closure, which prompted many to wonder why deputies or transportation employees couldn’t simply weed out the truckers and allow passenger traffic to flow through.
On Thursday, DiSalvo clarified that semi-trucks were just a part of the problem.
“I’d like to make it clear to the community, because I did get more than my share of emails today about why don’t we just not let trucks over the Pass,” he said Thursday at a Pitkin County community meeting on COVID-19. “The problem is volume, if I could make it as clear as possible.”
On a normal day, about 24,000 cars pass the stoplight at Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road heading in and out of Aspen, DiSalvo said, citing numbers provided by CDOT. Independence Pass generally handles about 3,000 cars per day, he said.
The I-70 closure through Glenwood Canyon funneled between 8,000 and 9,000 more cars through Aspen and up Independence Pass, and the road simply cannot handle that kind of traffic, he said. Not only would it gridlock the Pass, it would gridlock the city of Aspen, DiSalvo warned.
In the midst of an out of control fire and the possibility of an emergency situation like an evacuation of Aspen or other Roaring Fork Valley communities, such a situation was dangerous and had to be stopped, DiSalvo said. People here would have nowhere to go if the Pass remained open to passenger car traffic and an evacuation became necessary.
Also, emergency responders would have no way to get to the inevitable accidents that would occur on the Independence Pass road in the midst of such mountain gridlock, he said.
“I really stand by this decision,” DiSalvo said. “I think it is best for our community.”
He also emphasized that the decision was supported by CDOT and the Governor’s Office.
Some Garfield County officials are upset with the decision to close the pass. There is a phone call scheduled for Friday with the governor’s office, CDOT and Garfield and Pitkin counties to discuss the closure, Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said Thursday night.
“That’s a release valve for our entire community, and (Pitkin County) turned their back on us during an emergency,” Jankovsky told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on Thursday. “It’s an issue of health, safety and welfare. … This is crazy that they’ve shut down Independence Pass.”
Independence Pass opened Thursday to cyclists and hikers, though the initial closure Wednesday included all modes of transportation. Commercial vendors, such as backcountry guides who work on the Pass, are allowed up the road, DiSalvo said, while officials stationed at the closure gates will continue to let those camping on the Pass to exit when they come down.
CDOT officials clarified Thursday the closure on the east side near Leadville starts at the Highway 24 and 82 intersection with a check-point, but those wanting to get to the lake or trail heads farther up can proceed. The eastside is completely closed at the winter gate west of Twin Lakes near the La Plata Peak trailhead.
The closure on the Aspen side is at the winter gate, which is about 5 miles east of town. Independence Pass will remain closed concurrent with the I-70 closure. Fire officials said Thursday there is no estimated time for the interstate to reopen because they need to check the infrastructure of the road and also are concerned about rockfall because of the burned vegetation that was previously securing the rocks is now gone.
“Fire continues to be on both sides of the Interstate, which can cause debris to roll into the road creating safety hazards to the public,” according to a Thursday post on the Grizzly Creek Fire Facebook page. “Firefighting equipment is also frequenting the corridor. We continue to access the roadways and will inform the public as soon as it can be opened safely.”
Reporters Nate Peterson at the Vail Daily and Scott Condon of The Aspen Times contributed to this report.
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