Monday’s flash freeze storm caused hours-long traffic delays on WB I-70

A Colorado Department of Transportation snowplow heads east into Glenwood Canyon on Interstate 70.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

The winter storm on Monday evening began right before rush hour, bringing a flash freeze that left many stuck in gridlocked traffic for hours when westbound Interstate 70 closed west of Glenwood Springs. 

“It was the weather plus unfortunate timing,” said Elise Thatcher, regional communications manager for Colorado Department of Transportation.

The freeze came right at sunset, during many people’s commute home from work.

Thatcher said that CDOT crews had completed one round of dropping sand, refilled the trucks and were heading back out when traffic began to back up on I-70 going west from Glenwood Springs.

“With that wave of traffic, there was a bottleneck in South Canyon, and we couldn’t get our plows past everyone to drop the next round of sand,” she said. 

When the road was beginning to clear up again for commuters to make it through, multiple minor accidents began to happen going into South Canyon.

“We did get traffic moving again at about 8 p.m.,” Thatcher said. “Unfortunately, drivers tried to drive too quickly, because they were in a rush. They’re trying to get home, it had been a long day. But with everybody trying to drive too quickly on what was still a really slick section of I-70, that’s when multiple crashes happened just one after the other.”

From there, the trucks weren’t able to get through, either from people being unable to move to let them through or people being unaware that they needed that space to get through. 

The westbound lanes of I-70 ended up being closed from a little after 8 p.m. until about 11:30 p.m., stranding motorists on the interstate and in the West Glenwood roundabouts and extending back into town.

The specific part of the canyon that had the bottleneck was in a section where the road gets narrower, there is no turnoff, no frontage road or auxiliary lane and no way to cross over to the other side of the highway.

Coming east on the westbound lanes of the highway from New Castle was considered too dangerous for CDOT crews to try to mitigate the situation, Thatcher said.

“Traveling against the normal flow of traffic is really generally not safe and we want to avoid that if at all possible,” she said. 

The ice from the freeze caused multiple accidents after the storm hit, according to State Trooper Josh Lewis. Luckily there were no severe injuries from the accidents after the freeze, he said. 

The worst of the storm has passed but there will be continued minor snow showers into Wednesday, weather watchers said. 

“There will be isolated to scattered snow showers throughout the week,” Erin Walter, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said. 

Sunlight Mountain Resort did record 5 inches from the Monday night storm with more expected to follow throughout the week. Glenwood Springs is predicted to receive 1 to 2 more inches of snow by Wednesday evening. 

CDOT advises motorists to be prepared for commute times to take longer throughout the week. 

When a storm is happening, try to leave or make room for plow trucks to get through, and be cautious, leaving a three to four car distance behind them. 

Remember it is illegal to pass plow trucks when their lights are flashing and they are actively working. 

In city limits, the city strives to respond to snow and snow plowing concerns within 48 hours after the snowstorm has ended, according to a news release from the city. 

The city of Glenwood has a contractor on board that helps remove the snow piles down the middle of city streets with a snowblower that is 52 inches tall, 110 inches wide and weighs 9,000 pounds. Allow plenty of space when you see it coming, the release states.

National Weather Service Grand Junction storm forecast
Screen Shot 2022-12-13 at 5.13.37 PM

Stay safe on the road 

The Colorado Department of Transportation has an entire webpage to give people advice on winter driving preparedness. 

“We have a lot of people who are new to Colorado and new to mountain driving, so we really try to emphasize the basics in a lot of ways because a lot of folks just don’t know,” said Elise Thatcher, 

Ice and packed snow make it hard to stop, so be sure to give yourself extra space between you and the car in front of you for stopping room, CDOT advises.

It’s best to slow down and begin braking sooner when coming to a stop, especially on packed snow and ice. 

“We recommend that you do any of these three things only by itself when it’s snowing outside,” Thatcher said. “When it’s snowing, you want to either accelerate, or turn, or brake. No combination of those two or those three. That’ll set you up for success when you’re out driving.”

Headlights also help to improve visibility, according to the release. 

Important safety check before you leave

Before heading out, make sure to check the air pressure in all tires, including your spare, according to the city release.

Colorado does have a Tractions Law that requires that during a storm, all vehicles on the road should have at least a 3/16-inch tread depth.

The Tractions Law also requires that vehicles either have 4WD or AWD ability, or tires with a mud and snow designation, winter tires, tires with an all-weather rating by the manufacturer, chains or an approved alternative traction device.

Also, be prepared going upvalley toward Aspen. Just because vehicles and tires work well in Garfield County does not mean they will get around as easily in Pitkin County, Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said.

When heading out, make sure to have plenty of windshield washer fluid and fuel, and clean your car off well for visibility. Make sure to completely clear the snow off your car windows, lights and the top of your car, Thatcher said.

Additional safety checks throughout the season

Safety checks are very helpful this time of year with winter weather. Remember to give your vehicle a tune-up before long trips, according to the city release.

Here are a few other tips:

  • An updated oil change and the right amount of oil in your vehicle will also be helpful for a long or local commute in freezing weather. Other parts of the car that are helpful to inspect before trekking out in the cold are the battery, windshield wipers and brakes.

  • Most local car parts stores offer free battery testing and even charging.

  • Keeping a winterized emergency vehicle kit will be helpful for any minor to extreme situation that might involve getting stuck in the cold.

  • Leaving home with a shovel, a flashlight with extra batteries or crank powered, sand or cat litter for traction and jumper cables can be a life saver. Salt can also be helpful, but CDOT’s Thatcher said that the sand and cat litter give more grit for vehicles to gain traction on.

  • Other things to add to an emergency kit might include an emergency blanket or a good sleeping bag, a first aid kit, roadside triangles or reflectors and a jug of water that can be insulated by the sleeping bag to keep it from freezing.

  • Less important things to keep stocked in the car include an extra cell phone charger, rags, gloves and any other extra winter clothing.

  • Always plan your route in advance and be sure to let someone know your route and estimated time of arrival, according to the release.

Any other streets-related winter weather questions or concerns  can be directed to the Glenwood Springs Street Department at 970-384-6379.

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