Travel

Why CDOT Doesn't Know When Glenwood Canyon Will Reopen

Debris covering portions of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon makes it difficult for the Colorado Department of Transportation to assess the level of damage to the roadway and bridges.
Debris covering portions of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon makes it difficult for the Colorado Department of Transportation to assess the level of damage to the roadway and bridges. Colorado Department of Transportation
The closure of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon has already dragged on for nearly two weeks, causing chaos along problematic alternative routes and enormous delays for both personal and commercial traffic. So when will the roadway be open again?

The short answer to that question from Elise Thatcher, Colorado Department of Transportation communication manager for the northwest portion of the state: "We don't know."

But there's context to that response.

"The main challenge that we are experiencing is the amount of debris that has come down with the mudslides — specifically the slides on July 29, July 30 and July 31," Thatcher says. "The volume is staggering in places. For example, over this past weekend alone, we removed more than 400 truckloads, and there are thirteen tons per truckload."

The massive amount of debris has led to what Thatcher refers to as "this Groundhog Day effect with updates," because "we are removing literally tons of debris, and with each truckload, we're uncovering more of the damaged roadway. But in order for us to know the level of damage, we have to remove enough debris to see as much of the roadway as possible."

Damage is widespread along the twelve-mile canyon portion of I-70, with some of the most problematic spots at mile markers 123.5 and 124.5 on the western side of the stretch, near the Hanging Lake exit. "That's where visually it really looks like the road has been damaged," Thatcher notes. "But as more debris is being removed, our bridge experts can get a better idea of what's taken place."
click to enlarge
Another angle on damaged roadway through Glenwood Canyon.
On August 2, Governor Jared Polis announced that he and his team were readying both state and federal emergency declarations related to Glenwood Canyon. But it took Polis four more days to formalize two executive orders — the first authorizing the use of the Colorado National Guard for traffic control and other support services, the second enabling the state to seek federal funding for recovery assistance. And it wasn't until August 9 that Polis's team officially unveiled a request for $116 million in aid through the Federal Highway Administration's emergency relief program. That's led to widespread criticism from business and tourism interests on the Western Slope that the governor isn't acting quickly or aggressively enough to address a scenario whose negative economic impact could be off the charts.

But Thatcher stresses that CDOT is pouring an extraordinary amount of resources into the process. "The workers clearing debris from the canyon are all from our department," she notes, "and as of Friday morning [August 6], we've had 189 employees there from around the state who'd put in just under 15,000 employee hours. And that's only crews literally on the ground, moving material. That doesn't count leadership, engineers and other experts in the canyon."

Because CDOT inspectors still don't have a complete idea about how much repair work needs to be done, or if there are structural issues that might require even more time, Thatcher is unable to estimate whether the job will take weeks or perhaps months. She's hopeful that her colleagues will have a better sense of where things stand by week's end, but there's another wild card in the mix, she says: "The reasons why the mudslides came down had a lot to do with the amount of rain in these locations, and there's rain in the forecast for later this week. If that prompts more mudslides, it will affect the cleanup effort."

In the meantime, though, she points out, "This is not a long-term science project that we're working on. This is something we're working as efficiently and safely as possible to get the best visual assessment and inspection of the roadway. We're not slowly taking our time like on an archaeological dig. Our crews have literally been working around the clock. They have to do an incredible amount of coordination as quickly as possible to get this material out, and since it's going to locations outside the canyon, that takes time, too. We're throwing as many people at this as is possible given the physical constraints of the canyon."

CDOT recommends that westbound motorists from metro Denver exit I-70 at exit 205 (Silverthorne) and travel north on Colorado Highway 9 toward Kremmling, at which point they'll head west on U.S. Highway 40 and then south on Colorado 13 before returning to westbound I-70 at exit 90 in Rifle. Eastbound travelers are advised to take the same route in reverse.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts