The Colorado Department of Transportation is continuing its study on the future of Cottonwood Pass, a rural mountain county road in Eagle and Garfield counties sometimes used by unknowing drivers as an undesignated alternate route when Glenwood Canyon is closed.
The focus of the Cottonwood Pass Concept Design project is to begin the process of improving safety along Cottonwood Pass and make it more functional for the people who use it often. However, the project is also considering improving the functionality for increased traffic when Glenwood Canyon closes.
As some quick background: The issue with slides in the canyon is a familiar one — that section of Interstate 70 was fully closed for about two weeks in 2021 for the same reason, but on a much larger scale than last week's. In some places, debris and mud was stacked 12 feet high above the road after the land, weakened by the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, gave way in several sections.
CDOT warned the cleanup and repairs could take weeks or months to complete. For a few weeks, drivers were instructed to take a northern alternate route that wrapped around Meeker, Craig, Steamboat Springs, Kremmling and Silverthorne. The detour added about two and a half hours of extra time.
Some drivers sought a faster route. And they found one.
But it doesn't mean it was a good option.
Cottonwood Pass: The secret, but unsafe shortcut around I-70 shutdown
Drivers discovered, or opted for, Cottonwood Pass, which is an unfriendly road to most interstate traffic (and is not to be confused with the Cottonwood Pass between Buena Vista and Almont). But the prospect of less time in the car drew some drivers in, despite CDOT's warnings against using it. That year, the chief engineer for CDOT called the pass "a little better than a Jeep road." (Eagle County has since worked with wayfinding companies to ensure the pass is not shown as a detour route.)
The subsequent issues impacted all drivers — both travelers and the locals. People who live nearby and use the road daily found themselves in standstill traffic jams. And drivers unfamiliar with Cottonwood Pass on the Eagle County northern side found an unpaved road with sharp turns and narrow and steep sections. Cars rolled off the roadway. Speeding was an issue. Scared drivers were paralyzed in the middle of the road.
"It's frightening," Jeff Shroll, Eagle County manager, told Denver7 in 2021. "It's not for the faint of heart or people not used to mountain driving."
Incident volume increased on Cottonwood Pass during the Glenwood Canyon closure, and Eagle County and Garfield County had to spend a significant amount of money flagging and responding to incidents. At one point, the Colorado National Guard had to get involved.
The traffic and issues eased once Glenwood Canyon reopened to traffic. But officials knew it was only a matter of time before this same problem reared up again. They had actually been looking at improving the pass road, especially the Blue Hill stretch, long before the 2021 closure of Glenwood Canyon, CDOT said.
But things really started moving in the fall of 2021, when CDOT began meeting with groups who own property along the pass to identify ways to improve parts of the road but keep its rural nature and minimize impacts to private properties and natural resources, CDOT said. Those discussions included Eagle County, Garfield County, private owners, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.
By June 2022, the CDOT had started the Cottonwood Pass Concept Design project. Its purpose was only to reach a conceptual level for a design, as CDOT has not yet secured funding to begin work on an official design or construction.
Both impacted counties and CDOT created this project with the understanding that Cottonwood Pass is not an endorsed detour route when Glenwood Canyon is closed. However, the pass is a vital connection for local residents who need to travel between Gypsum and Colorado Highway 82 for work, school, medical care and more, CDOT said.
The two counties kicked off the project by pinpointing 14 locations along Cottonwood Pass Road and Catherine Store Road that needed safety improvements. Six are in Eagle County and eight are in Garfield County.
Some locations had limited visibility or tight curves. Others were extra narrow or had no guardrail.
A highly detailed breakdown of the proposals for each of the 14 sites is available in anonline handout from a public meeting in March 2023. Individual costs for each site ranged from the lowest estimate of $200K to the highest estimate of $360 million.
CDOT said Eagle County and Garfield County will determine if and when improvements at each of those 14 sites will move forward.
The pass road had three ways to connect to Colorado Highway 82 on the south side: Catherine Store Road, County Road 113, and a combo of County Road 114 and 115. Both of the latter had "significant challenges and constraints," according to CDOT, so Catherine Store Road was determined as the best route to analyze.
This concept design part of the project was expected to wrap in April, according to the below schedule. However, Elise Thatcher with CDOT said Tuesday that the department plans to wrap up an official concept design report sometime this fall, possibly by October.
The concept plan made it clear that the pass road would not become a state highway and winter maintenance was not planned for the short-term. It also would not take bicycle infrastructure into account. Current length and size restrictions for large vehicles would remain the same.
This project is the first of many steps ahead of any actual construction.
So, what's next?
In short, further design and construction funds have not yet been identified. There is no schedule for construction as of now.
Over the next one to two years, CDOT and the two counties will explore funding options for the proposed safety improvements. These projects may move forward individually or as groups. In the next three years, officials will work on a final design, right-of-way acquisition if required and can begin construction.
All construction hinges on funding availability.
The report set to be released this fall will likely have more details on what is expected in the short-term and long-term for Cottonwood Pass.