A photo of the damage on Interstate 70 in Glenwood canyon caused by a mudslide.

Garfield, Eagle counties mull Cottonwood Pass options

August 10, 2021

Commissioners from Garfield and Eagle countries met with Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) officials on Tuesday to discuss the Interstate 70 closure in Glenwood Canyon, and potential improvements to Cottonwood Pass Road, a mostly undeveloped route that connects the town of Gypsum to Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale.

Interstate 70 is closed through Glenwood Canyon due to a series of large mudslides and debris flows that damaged the roadway on July 29, rendering it impassable. The slides originated near a burn scar from last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire, which encompassed 32,631 acres.

CDOT Executive Director Shoshana M. Lew told the commissioners that the full closure should be in place for days, rather than weeks, and that some form of thoroughfare would be open as soon as repairs are made, and the canyon is deemed safe.

“We’re working in real time to get a contractor in there to get this fixed,” she added.

CDOT Region 3 Director Mike Goolsby reported that most of blockage has been removed from the roadway, though there are four large areas of debris in the Colorado River. The greatest extent of damage to the interstate exists at mile marker 123.5 in the eastbound lane, where there’s a hole in the road that’s 20 feet deep, and 70 to 80 feet in diameter. The Glenwood Canyon Recreation Trail is likely closed indefinitely, CDOT added.

“The governor wants all four lanes in the canyon open by Thanksgiving,” Goolsby said.

Both Garfield and Eagle county commissioners noted that the impacts on the area’s workforce and residents traveling to medical appointments have been substantial. They also noted how the closure has affected business and supply lines on the Western Slope.

Governor Jared Polis has requested $116 million in federal aid from the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Emergency Relief program to help with Interstate 70 cleanup and repair efforts. Of that amount, 10 percent was approved for an emergency disbursement on Tuesday afternoon.

If the funding request is approved, $50 million is slated to cover a study of Cottonwood Pass and the development of safety improvements, added CDOT Chief Engineer Steve Harelson.

Cottonwood Pass traffic increased heavily during closure
Despite being a potentially dangerous and unrecommended alternative to Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, traffic through the remote corridor over Cottonwood Pass is on the rise, necessitating the meeting between the two county’s elected officials.

“We are seeing how connected we are in terms of workforce during this closure,” said Eagle County Board Chair Matt Scherr.

Eagle County estimated safety improvements, including lane widening, realignment, and additional guardrails, could cost $10.05 million for the basic, two-lane county road in the short term. The improvements would also mean that Cottonwood Pass would be closed for a period of time.

In 2010, large scale safety improvements on Cottonwood Pass were estimated at between $47 and $62 million, and those numbers are estimated to be much larger now, according to Eagle County’s presentation.

The hard gypsum soil in the area makes large-scale work difficult, necessitating the use of special equipment and perhaps even blasting the ground, according to Eagle County Engineer Ben Gerdes.

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky thanked Eagle County for its work to keep Cottonwood Pass open during the canyon closure. He noted the stress that the increased traffic has had on homeowners along the route.

“I’m hearing from the folks that live below Cottonwood Pass,” Jankovsky said. “They are just inundated with traffic. From my perspective, this needs to continue to be a two-lane county road that’s utilized by our citizens.”

Cottonwood Pass Road (10A) itself is roughly 15.5 miles long in Eagle County, with just 1.8 miles of that road located in – and maintained by – Garfield County. Overall, the passage is around 26 miles between Highway 82 and Gypsum Creek Road.

From Highway 82, Cottonwood Pass Road (10A) is met from Garfield County by taking Spring Valley Road to County Road 115 (Red Canyon Road) and meeting with County Road 113 (Cattle Creek Road), which then connects with 10A near the boundary with Eagle County. The 10A road is typically open from April to November, weather conditions permitting.

The Garfield County roads leading to Cottonwood Pass aren’t designed to handle the increased traffic volume, and many pass uncomfortably close to homes and ranch properties. All the routes connecting Highway 82 and Gypsum Creek Road feature tight corners and switchbacks, which can be especially perilous during inclement weather.

Garfield County bars semis and commercial vehicles from traveling on these roads, outside of local deliveries to homeowners. According to Eagle County Road and Bridge, any vehicle greater than 8’6” in width, 14’6” in height and 45 feet in length requires a permit to travel over Cottonwood Pass. However, during a closure in Glenwood Canyon, a 35-foot length limit is in effect by Eagle County due to increased vehicle traffic.

“It’s not going to be a commercial route,” said Commissioner John Martin. “It just can’t be. The sheriff’s office would run out of tow trucks.”

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