The nerve center of Glenwood Canyon: Hanging Lake Tunnels command stands test as crucial regional operation hub
The heart of Glenwood Canyon is also a big part of the brains of Colorado’s regional highway system.
It almost didn’t happen that way.
Inside the Hanging Lake Tunnels command center, that’s situated between the eastbound and westbound bores, sits one of the original scale models of the twin tunnels.
Formerly housed at the Frontier Historical Museum in Glenwood Springs, the model was built when Interstate 70 was being planned through Glenwood Canyon in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Originally, four separate tunnels were to pass through the south side of Glenwood Canyon on either side of the Cinnamon Creek drainage, with a pair of bridges in the middle connecting the two bores.
Noticeably missing in that model is the four-story concrete structure that now fills the space at Cinnamon Creek, creating a continuous tunnel in each direction.
“At the time, state highway officials decided that it needed to be a manned facility,” Trevor Allen, operational manager at the command center, explained during a recent mini-tour for a pair of newspaper reporters. The tour took place before the recent floods that have closed I-70 through the canyon for the past 13 days.
Still state of the art
The tunnel structures include two 4,000-foot-long traffic tunnels and what’s now a multi-functional maintenance and emergency response facility for Glenwood Canyon.
I-70 through Glenwood Canyon now sees an average of about 20,000 vehicles per day, according to Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) statistics.
The tunnel command center also serves as the Western Slope Colorado Transportation Management Center for CDOT.
During 2020’s Grizzly Creek Fire and again during the current I-70 closure in Glenwood Canyon, those regional dispatch functions have been relocated to CDOT’s Glenwood Springs headquarters.
But the tunnel command center was a critical part of the firefighting operations last year and now during the cleanup and repair efforts in the canyon aimed at getting the highway reopened as soon as possible.
A total of 126 cameras keep eyes on the 12.5-mile length of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. The section of highway, considered an engineering marvel when it was completed in 1993, includes 40 bridges or viaducts covering nearly half that length, plus five tunnels, extensive retaining walls, four full-service rest areas and a recreation path running from one end to the other.
The command center itself is staffed by 35 full-time employees — with another five dispatch operators on the way to help with CDOT incident response and travel alert messaging.
A team of between two and five dispatchers keeps watch from the central command center 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Multiple large video monitors scan every section of the canyon, as well as highways in other parts of the state, as dispatchers keep watch for any motorists in distress, crashes, rocks in the road or anything that can disrupt traffic flow.
“The main purpose of the tunnel command is emergency response,” Allen said. “We’re able to respond to vehicles, whether it’s a flat tire, an engine fire or a life-threatening emergency.”
The tunnel complex is self-sufficient, with power provided by both Xcel Energy and Holy Cross Energy, plus a diesel generator backup system, plus water and sewer systems.
“We’re kind of like a firehouse,” Allen said, pointing to overnight facilities where crews can stay, shower, eat and work.
In fact, one of the primary functions of the facility is fire response, including numerous firefighting apparatus based on site and regular firefighter training provided by the nearby Gypsum Fire Department.
Recognizing the importance of the tunnel command center to CDOT operations, after the Grizzly Creek Fire and before the ensuing mudslides and debris flows this summer, the decision was made to build a large earthen berm along Cinnamon Creek to protect the vital structure.
That berm has held up during at least three separate major debris flow events in recent weeks, and the command remains intact as a result, Allen said.
A large community room and kitchen area just outside the traffic operation center control room lacks natural light due to the windows being boarded up to guard against any errant debris washing up against the building.
“If we didn’t have that berm, mud and rocks would have come right through those windows and probably into the ventilation system, and we would have been talking about how to clean all of that stuff from out of the tunnels,” Allen said.
It also would have likely shut down the command center indefinitely.
Large fans are used as part of the tunnel ventilation system, either pushing vehicle exhaust out either end of the tunnels, or sucking it up and out the command center roof.
A series of steel doors passing vertically through each level of the command center allows for two 10-ton cranes to move and repair or replace the gigantic fans and handle other large equipment.
In the operations control room, on this particular day, two dispatchers were busy keeping watch on the multiple video monitors as they flashed images from inside the canyon and elsewhere across western Colorado.
“These guys are responsible for dispatching, fire-life-safety in the tunnels and the canyon, and dispatch for almost all of the Western Slope,” Allen said.
“We always have at least two people in here, but I’ve seen all five stations filled if something big is happening,” he said.
That can range from the recent debris flows and the series of flash flood warnings leading up to them, as well as routine response and closure alerts related to crashes, rockfall, weather events, construction and maintenance operations.
The addition of five new dispatch operators in the coming weeks and months should help speed up those response efforts, especially on the communications front, Allen said.
“Right now, these two guys are doing everything from dispatching, changing out the electronic messaging signs and getting the messages out to the traveling public on (CoTrip.org) and social media,” he said.
The new personnel will add an extra person to what now is five shift crews at the tunnel command of five people each, he said.
“We’re really looking forward to it, because it is a daunting task with what all we have going on here,” he said.
Elise Thatcher, Northwest Regional communications manager for CDOT, said three of the new dispatch operators began work Monday and are going through training. A fourth new operator is scheduled to start next week, and hiring is under way for the fifth new operator.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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