Editorial: Let’s make an informed choice on Cottonwood Pass road
We didn’t run out of milk or toilet paper, stranded here on the west side of Glenwood Canyon after tons of rocks fell on Interstate 70 on the evening of Feb. 15. And, to be honest, it was sort of pleasant for a couple of days to have a little less traffic through Glenwood Springs.
But, overall, the longest closure of the canyon since I-70 was completed caused a lot of headaches and, probably, some lost commerce, though anecdotes don’t give us an overall picture and are a poor basis for public policy decisions. We don’t want to make light of canceled Glenwood Springs hotel reservations, but we don’t know how many people might have stayed, ate or bought gas here who otherwise might not have. And we sure can’t get very worked up about our friends in Aspen being out of lemons, napkins and a little slow to get liquor, as the Aspen Times reported about the upvalley impact.
After two or three days and some very long delays getting through the canyon when pilot-car operations started, a number of people began asking why the road over Cottonwood Pass can’t be made passable year-round.
While we are skeptical of the affordability and practicality of upgrading the county road, which itself would have slide risks, we think it’s worth an authoritative study to answer longstanding questions.
This has been examined before. A 1970s study looking at routes to complete I-70 estimated that sending the road over Cottonwood Pass would cost around $77.7 million, compared with $65.2 million for Glenwood Canyon.
After the last major rockslide in Glenwood Canyon to close I-70 for more than a day, in 2010, Eagle County studied the route and determined that a two-lane paved road that could be maintained all year could cost $47 million or more.
A two-lane highway built to the standards of U.S. Highway 6 through the Eagle Valley would have cost $66 million or more in 2010 dollars, according to that study.
The project might require land acquisition and would need to address the fact that the route crosses big game winter habitat and elk calving areas.
The politics are complex. The road is an Eagle County-Garfield County route. If it is to be a viable, maintained year-round road, we believe it would need to be taken over by the state.
Certainly, the counties could not be expected to finance the study or the project, nor should they be expected to maintain it.
Given that the road would act as a potential complete bypass of Glenwood Springs, perhaps easing traffic a little but also cutting visitor spending a proportional amount, the city should not be expected to pay a single penny toward either the study or any eventual upgrade. (If any local governments chip in, we’d suggest that Aspen and Pitkin County decide just how much timely liquor and lemon delivery is worth.)
We are concerned that spending tens of millions of dollars to upgrade the road would be a bit like using a sledgehammer to kill flies.
Data show that this month’s closure was just the fifth closure of the canyon because of a rockslide since Jan. 1, 2012, and the first one since 2010 that has gone into a second day.
In the previous four years, rockfall closed I-70 westbound three times: On Sept. 9 and Oct. 30, 2013, for 35 and 48 minutes, respectively; and for 34 minutes on July 11, 2014. The worst closure of the last four years was June 11, 2015, a damp day when travel was hampered for nearly eight hours. I-70 was closed for nearly two hours in both directions that afternoon.
The canyon does experience frequent closures — records from the Colorado Department of Transportation show 57 such incidents for any reason between Jan. 1, 2012, and Dec. 31, 2015. Twenty-five of those lasted longer than three hours, while 26 were less than an hour and a half.
Therein lies the policy question.
Is it worth, say, $70 million to create a shorter option than the 4-hour northern detour when the canyon closes for rocks, accidents or other reasons?
We’re skeptical, but let’s get good information and have the discussion.
We may, as a state, decide that’s a good choice. Or we may decide it’s a much more tolerable cost of living in the mountains than high housing costs chasing out smart young people, which affects the health of our communities every day.
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