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Did CDOT lie? Internal CDOT emails show why employees decided to misinform drivers

Did CDOT lie?
Posted at 7:32 PM, Aug 12, 2021

DENVER — If you’ve ever thought your GPS system in your car or on your phone was misleading you about road closures, you may have been right all along.

Case in point: Independence Pass (also known as CO 82). Last week, if you would have tried to take CO 82, your Apple, TomTom and Google maps systems would have shown that the road was closed.

The closure was originally attributed to a mudslide on the road. However, the reality is that there was no mudslide and the road was not closed to traffic.

Denver7 has obtained dozens of emails from Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) employees about the misinformation to find out who made the decision to deceive the public and why.

The discussions started on July 27, when CDOT employee Elise Thatcher sent an email to some of her coworkers saying she was going to request a closure I-70, CO 82 and, as a courtesy to Garfield/Eagle counties, Cottonwood Pass.

One week later, on August 3, another series of emails between employees stressed the need to have both passes marked as closed on the apps for the sake of safety.

“Hey, we are needing to get these navigating apps to show Independence Pass closed for all of August at least. We currently are having a tremendous amount of traffic up there and it is a safety concern,” said Section 2 Maintenance Superintendent John David. “Last year during the fire we eventually got there with most of the apps and it really decreased our traffic flows on the pass.”

The email went on to say having the road shown as open has created havoc and that Thatcher didn’t have time to continually deal with it. CDOT wanted to show the roads as closed for at least one month on the apps.

A few hours later, Thatcher responded, writing: “This spring it’s been harder to get CO 82 marked as closed unless it’s truly closed, so more recently I resorted to saying the road itself was closed due to flash flood Denver… which is technically kind of true. It’s worked for a while last week.”

There was also email correspondence to TomTom that day asking for the road to be shown as closed and between CDOT employees showing that Google planned to change its maps in that area.

There were also discussions about some tech companies offering automation for trusted partners like CDOT.

That would allow CDOT to mark roads as opened or closed on various apps without having to go through the tech companies, thus expediting the process and giving the state agency more control.

CDOT employee Gregg Miller sent emails to TomTom asking to be enrolled as a trusted partner and to have the process expedited to help deal with some of the current issues the state is facing.

There were also discussions between state employees about putting up new signage in the area to warn certain vehicles not to use the road.

The next day, on August 4, internal discussions about the decision to mark the road as closed continued. In an email David wrote to Miller, it states Google Maps had still not updated for Cottonwood Pass, and said the closure is desperately needed due to the traffic.

He blamed drivers who are following their GPS apps rather than CDOT’s suggested detour route for the problem.

“Cottonwood is a dirt road and only one lane in areas and causing multiple issues for the County, and Independence is seeing bumper-to-bumper traffic and guessing 7,000 to 9,000 cars a day instead of the normal 1,000 cars a day creating a very dangerous situation,” David wrote.

Roughly 40 minutes later, CDOT Maintenance and Operations Director John Lorme weighed in on the matter, asking for the roads to be reflected as closed as soon as possible and saying, “I will assume responsibility. All locals understand what’s going on. It’s the CMV and RV traffic that is creating hazardous conditions. We closed it on the map apps last year and it was successful in reducing incidents.”

The decision was then made to add the closure to COTrip, the state’s website for road closures.

Between noon and 9 p.m. that day, something not laid out in the emails changed the agency’s mind whether to mark the roads as closed.

Later that evening, CDOT began to reverse course on marking the roads as closed since they were actually open.

Lorme wrote an email to Miller asking for him to reach out to the tech companies to ask them to reflect that CO 82 was open.

“I guess I had the best of intentions, but bad judgment,” Lorme wrote.

According to the emails, the ultimate decision to show the road as open was made by CDOT’s executive director Shoshana Lew.

The next day, on August 5, the emails about the closure continued with CDOT employees saying they were now getting questions from the tech companies about the back and forth with Independence Pass.

Miller worried whether the change of course would damage the agency’s reputation as a trusted partner with these companies.

“The new ATMS is going to include these and be completely automated so we don’t have to call or email Google, Waze, Apple to get them to show things closed. I am very concerned about notifying Google, Waze, Apple about reopening the road now. I don’t know how they will react to keeping us as a trusted partner, or if they will allow us to automate these data feeds in the future,” Miller wrote.

Denver7 reached out to CDOT Thursday as well as some of the employees involved in the email chains to ask for interviews.

No one agreed to speak on camera. Instead, two statements were sent to Denver7.

The first from Lorme, which clarified that Independence Pass was never really closed and that he asked staff to do so without fully vetting the directive. After further discussion, Lorme went on to say that he reversed his previous request and the information was corrected.

CDOT Communications Director Matt Inzeo, meanwhile, repeated some of the same language from the first statement and acknowledged the misunderstanding it caused for drivers.

“This caused brief but significant confusion as travelers sought alternate routes to I-70. There was no policy decision to close the road, and the COtrip information was quickly correct,” Inzeo said.

The statement went on to say that given the magnitude of the impacts with I-70 being closed, CDOT is taking all steps possible to keep alternate routes open, including pausing a construction project on US-50 so that drivers can use the route.

“Traffic control points and devices including traffic lights and other mitigation measures have been put in place on Independence Pass to allow vehicles to use the road safely. There is no perfect solution while we face a lengthy closure of I-70, but we believe a strategy of open routes with additional traffic control is the best one right now,” Inzeo wrote.

In a statement, Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for the governor, said Polis believed Lew did the right thing when he learned of what had occurred.

“When the Governor found out about this through Denver 7, he let CDOT Director Shoshana Lew know that she did the right thing and complimented her on stopping the effort to provide misinformation to the public about road closures. The Governor believes that it is the responsibility of the state to provide accurate and trusted information for travelers and empower everyone to make their own decisions.”

The Pitkin County’s Sheriff’s Office, which tweeted out the misinformation about the mudslide last week, also did not respond to requests for a comment.

Google and Apple also remained silent on the issue on Thursday. Apple’s maps still show the route as closed while Google has changed it.