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Colorado asks for $116M in federal aid to repair I-70 through Glenwood Canyon, improve other highways

State also wants to bolster conditions on alternate routes
Posted at 2:20 PM, Aug 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-10 18:26:01-04

DENVER – Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is asking for $116 million in federal money, including $11.6 million as soon as possible, to help clean up the mudslides in Glenwood Canyon, make repairs to Interstate 70, and study improvements to nearby roads that could be used as workarounds.

Polis, the Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shoshana Lew, and CDOT Chief Engineer Stephen Harelson sent letters to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg Sunday requesting the $116 million in FHWA Emergency Relief money, with hopes that one-tenth of it could be sent as quickly as possible to make emergency repairs while further damage surveys and estimates are made by CDOT.

Polis said on Aug. 2 he would declare a state disaster and make a federal disaster declaration request while hinting that Glenwood Canyon could be closed for weeks. He issued two disaster declarations on Friday – one which activated the state’s Emergency Operations Plan and the other which gave the state the ability to seek federal aid.

A letter from Polis to Buttigieg and FHWA Acting Administrator Stephanie Pollack said there have been 19 different debris flow events in Glenwood Canyon between June 26 and Aug. 3.

But the July 29 storm brought 2-4 inches of rain to the canyon in an hour, sending a massive debris flow down Blue Gulch and closing the interstate. Similar storms hit on July 31 and Aug. 1 that brought down even more rock, mud and trees and “caused considerable damage to at least four discrete structures in the Canyon,” according to a letter from Harelson, the CDOT engineer, to John Cater, the division administrator for the Colorado division of the FHWA.

A separate letter issued Sunday to Cater said the July 29 debris flow at Blue Gulch took out 50 feet of railing on the westbound lanes of I-70 and a undetermined amount of barrier on both directions of the interstate, which is still mostly buried under debris.

The storms over those three days in late July and early August damaged and destroyed barriers, the culvert, railing and the road surface on westbound I-70. On eastbound I-70 at Blue Gulch, according to the letter, the interstate is “completely demolished’ for about 100 feet of the way, and debris from the interstate was found throughout the Colorado River.

“The interstate roadway cross section will need to be completely reconstructed within this section,” officials wrote. There are also damaged utility lines, signs, retaining wall foundations and more.

Colorado’s full congressional delegation, led by Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, sent a letter to Buttigieg and Pollack Saturday urging them to grant what was at the time the forthcoming federal request.

According to the letters, along with needing to fix I-70 and prepare for future mudslides and flash flooding on the Grizzly Creek burn scar for the next several years, the alternate routes drivers need to take to get around the closure are expected to cause further wear to those routes, which will also need to be repaired.

And officials anticipate needing to bolster those state highways that provide alternate routes in order to deal with the effects of climate change in Glenwood Canyon that could disrupt traffic there in the future.

“The ongoing vulnerability of [Glenwood Canyon] due to the severe erosion described above will likely require improvements to diversion routes such as Cottonwood Pass to be able to withstand heavier traffic in the future while providing resiliency,” Harelson wrote to Cater. “Prior estimates concluded that improvements to Cottonwood Pass are upwards of $50 million of which has been carried forward in the estimates below, subject to further assessment which could increase this number.”

The local Cottonwood Pass is a mostly unpaved, narrow road used by locals, and state officials have discouraged people from using the road to get around the Glenwood closure.

CDOT said the initial $116 million damage estimate includes $4 million in debris removal costs, $20 million in visible damage estimates, another $20 million in assumed damage estimates, $5 million in geohazard mitigation, $5 million in construction management and engineering costs, $10 million in impacts to alternate routes, and $50 million to conduct a “future resiliency and redundancy study” surrounding those alternate routes.

CDOT said while the current estimate was $116 million, it would provide a better assessment within 8-10 weeks. And those estimates could easily change if more mudslides occur, Harelson wrote.

“It is likely more damaging rainfall events may occur in GWC which could have the potential to continue raveling unstable drainages that begin hundreds of feet above I-70 and terminate at the Colorado River,” he wrote to Cater. “If further damage occurs due to future events, all estimates will need to be revised to include the additional damage.”

He added that the damage the debris has done to the Colorado River will need to be addressed and that rechanneling efforts would be needed to try to restore it to its prior channel – costs that were not taken into consideration for the current request.

Polis and Lew said the request comes in part as recognition “that long term recovery in this area will require significant attention to climate resiliency” and that the state and federal agencies would need to closely work together to manage the area, much of which is federal land.

“While it is likely that this number in particular will evolve as we refine our estimates, we believe it is critical, from the outset of this process, to include this initial resiliency cost estimate and stress the importance of improving the safety of key alternate routes that are needed for the movement of people, goods, emergency operations, and the vitality of the supply chain within and through Colorado and the entirety of the intermountain west,” he and Lew wrote.

Aside from the federal aid request, CDOT had some good news out of Glenwood Canyon Monday, as crews were able to work on clearing debris through the weekend without any storms moving through.

The department said trucks hauled 440 loads, with 13 tons of material each, away from I-70 on Saturday and Sunday, clearing parts of the eastbound lanes near Hanging Lake.

“Work will resume tomorrow with crews cleaning drainages and drop drains, and washing roadways,” CDOT said in a news release. “The priority will be to continue to clean up all the slides from Hanging Lake Tunnel to Bair Ranch on the eastbound lanes, where there is still a lot of debris.”

CDOT said it was able to uncover most of the debris at Blue Gulch so inspectors and engineers could start looking at the damage. Debris removal will continue Monday before visual inspections can get underway.

CDOT’s incident command says it hopes to finish emergency repairs fast enough so that all lanes of traffic are open by the time the ski season opens later this fall.

Colorado State Patrol is helping manage traffic on I-70 and on the alternate routes, and the Colorado National Guard is assisting.

The state said the Colorado Business Emergency Operations Center was surveying the business community “to determine operational and economic impacts.”