Transportation

Inside Weekend I-70 Closure and Ongoing Mountain Corridor Horrors

A simulation showing what Interstate 70 at Brighton Boulevard is supposed to look like after the Central 70 project is complete.
A simulation showing what Interstate 70 at Brighton Boulevard is supposed to look like after the Central 70 project is complete. Colorado Department of Transportation
Interstate 70 through Colorado has been an intermittent nightmare for weeks — and it's about to get worse.

Eastbound I-70 between Brighton Boulevard and Interstate 270 will be shut down this weekend, for the entire weekend; the closure starts at 10 p.m. tonight, July 16, and isn't scheduled to lift until 5 a.m. Monday, July 19. (Next week, westbound I-70 will be closed along the same stretch.) And while traffic is currently flowing through the I-70 mountain corridor near Glenwood Springs, it was stopped again yesterday afternoon because of a flash flood warning — something that's happened several times since a major mudslide in late June and could continue bedeviling travelers for the rest of the summer.

That eastbound section of I-70 is being closed this weekend for what the Colorado Department of Transportation describes as "final paving operations" prior to wrapping up the latest phase of the Central 70 project — the three miles of highway between Colorado Boulevard and Quebec Street. The westbound I-70 closure will get under way at 10 p.m. on Friday, July 23, and continue through 5 a.m. on Monday, July 26.

"For the safety of the public, CDOT and the Central 70 Project developer, Kiewit Meridiam Partners, have agreed to implement additional, one-directional, full weekend closures so motorists aren’t driving on uneven lanes or temporary striping while we finish work in this section,” states CDOT Central 70 project director Bob Hays. "In addition, by conducting these full weekend closures, we will be able to finish paving and other construction activities in this area several weeks early, providing relief to both motorists and businesses. Traffic will be in its final alignment by the end of July, and crews will be finished with this section by fall 2021."

Here's a map of the detour that eastbounders will have to take over the weekend:

As for the mountain corridor, CDOT instituted what it dubbed a "safety closure" around 3 p.m. on July 15 after the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the Grizzly Creek burn area, and extended the shutdown when the warning transitioned into a flash watch. But the department's cotrip.org page shows that both alerts have now expired.

People who live in and around Glenwood Springs are getting used to this drill, which has been instituted several times since the afternoon of Saturday, June 26, when CDOT tweeted: "Due to a Flash Flood Watch for the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar, rest areas and the recreation path in Glenwood Canyon are CLOSED. CDOT crews will be on standby." At 3:16 p.m. that day, CDOT noted that westbound I-70 between exit 133 at Dotsero and Exit 116/CO 82 had been closed because of a mudslide. By 3:46 p.m., access to eastbound I-70 through that stretch had been shut off, too, and at 4:09 p.m., the department reported that the closure extended from milepost 109 to milepost 87 — more than twenty miles.

The mountain corridor portion of I-70 remained inaccessible to drivers until just after 6 p.m. on June 28. But the canyon was closed again for part of June 29, with flash flood watches issued on June 30 and July 1 before another shutdown on July 3. Assorted closures dragged on until July 5, with more on July 14 and 15.

The current forecast for the Glenwood Springs area shows no rain until next Saturday, July 24, suggesting that travelers this weekend may be able to avoid the incredibly lengthy and time-consuming detour necessary when the mountain corridor is deemed off limits. But weather changes quickly in the high country, so drivers should be ready for anything. Here are CDOT tips in case you're caught in a deluge:
Encountering Inclement Weather

If you are stuck in a closure waiting for a road to be cleared of mud or rocks, do not leave your car unless absolutely necessary. Never hang out in the grassy median located between lanes. If traffic is moving in the opposite direction, the median can be a hazardous area. Emergency response vehicles and heavy equipment may also need the median area to move about and access the emergency scene.

Lengthy closures on the interstate may also be the result of staged releases. As stopped traffic backs up, creating long lines, traffic will be let go in stages, allowing traffic queues ahead to clear, before releasing more traffic.

Be Prepared

Highway closures can last for as little as a few minutes or for as long as several hours. When drivers set out on a trip, especially through high country roads or the I-70 mountain corridor, it is wise to have the car supplied with an emergency kit. The kit should contain at the very minimum: water, snacks, flashlight, and a blanket. Remember to also carry water for your pets if you’re traveling with animals. You may even consider packing some items to keep you or children occupied while waiting in the car. Activity books, colored pencils or a deck of cards can help pass the time.

Driver Safety

When motorists drive up onto a flooded area, there are several precautions to follow.

Never drive through any flooded area, you do not know how deep or how fast the water is running.

Even 8-10 inches of water can float an average-sized car, which can be easily swept off the road.

Driving too fast on wet roads or in flooded areas can cause a vehicle to hydroplane. Never use your cruise control during rainy conditions with standing water on the roadway.

Any amount of flooding or mud can obstruct the roadway and hinder drivers from knowing exactly where to drive. If you cannot see the roadway, be smart and wait for the water to subside.

Water and mud can contain unknown hazards hidden under the surface – rocks or other debris, like plant material and tree branches.
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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