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Eagle, Garfield counties discuss upgrades to Cottonwood Pass Road during I-70 closures

August 10, 2021, 4:30 pm

Eagle County on Tuesday issued the following press release on potentially improving the Cottonwood Pass Road to help ease traffic during ongoing closures of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon:

Today the Eagle County Board of Commissioners participated in two public discussions about the future of Cottonwood Pass, a dirt and partially paved county road that spans both Eagle and Garfield Counties and connects the Eagle River Valley to the Roaring Fork Valley. They also discussed comprehensive strategies for responding to prolonged I-70 closures. The first discussion occurred in the morning as part of a regular Board of County Commissioners meeting. Then, Commissioners Kathy Chandler-Henry, Jeanne McQueeney, and Matt Scherr travelled over Cottonwood Pass to join Garfield County Commissioners in Glenwood Springs at 2 p.m. for a work session. Both meetings were publicly televised and are available to watch on Eagle County Television.

In the sessions, county leaders discussed options for the future of Cottonwood Pass and how to respond to I-70 closures. The following were some key take-aways:

-Eagle County Engineer Ben Gerdes and Road and Bridge Director John Harris identified in a presentation six areas ready for substantial improvements that would allow Cottonwood Pass to be widened and increase line of sight for drivers. This would allow the road to more safely endure traffic. The projects vary in scope and cost; together, all six projects would cost an estimated $10-15 million. One project, the re-engineering of Blue Hill, would necessitate a road closure during construction. The Blue Hill project would be required to allow the pass to become a year-round road. Even if all of the proposed projects were completed, the road would still not be considered a permanent alternative route to I-70. “This is what it would take to make a safe two-lane county road,” said Harris.

-State and/or federal funds will be required for any significant road improvement projects.

-Wildlife concerns will be considered for any projects; a paved, year round road would likely require a thorough environmental analysis and construction could take years to complete. Even smaller projects may require a National Environmental Policy Act study.

-Communications should be improved between Incident Command structure and local organizations, as well as among affected counties and first responders, was identified as a priority. 

-Discussions will continue about traffic management at points of exit and entry to the pass in both counties.

“We’ve heard nothing but good news so far today,” said Commissioner McQueeney. “CDOT’s statement that it will be days, not weeks, until I-70 could be reopened is amazing to hear. Clearly, reopening the highway would provide the most immediate relief to this situation. We also understand that during this meeting the announcement was made that federal funds have been released to address the closure. Eagle County has already created a proposal to put those funds to use for immediate improvements.”

“Workforce issues are top of line for us,” said Commissioner Chandler-Henry. “There are so many constituents who live in one valley and work in the other, and they depend on this county road corridor to support their livelihoods. We really appreciate Garfield County’s offer of partnership on improving Cottonwood Pass. There are many factors at play in improving the road, but if we can do it in an environmentally responsible way to keep this emergency lifeline open, we will endorse that.”

“Workforce concerns are definitely our top priority,” said Commissioner Scherr. “With $10.5 million or more in federal funds, we could make this road much safer. Safety is paramount for us; we want to ensure that all motorists have a safe trip from one side to the other. Teachers, medical personnel, first responders, construction workers, county employees and many others depend on the pass when I-70 is closed. We hope that the funding will arrive as quickly as possible so we can begin pursuing these upgrades.”

These quotes were paraphrased for this news release.

About Cottonwood Pass
Cottonwood Pass is a 26-mile stretch of road, 15.5 miles of which are located in Eagle County. It is a typical backcountry mountain road, used primarily by residents and locals and cresting at approximately 8,000 feet in elevation. It is seasonally open from April to November. The Eagle County side in particular is rugged, with numerous steep and winding sections that are not designed for high volumes of traffic and which is dangerous to drivers not accustomed to the terrain. Throughout the years there have been discussions to improve the road, but due to its extreme features and the high cost of improvements, major infrastructural upgrades have not been pursued, although some minor yet effective adjustments have been implemented. A 2010 estimate for the Eagle County portion concluded that 12-ft lanes with 6-ft shoulders would cost $66 million. 11-ft lanes with 4-ft shoulder would cost $47 million. Those costs are likely higher now.

When the section of Interstate-70 that runs through Glenwood Canyon is closed, traffic increases on Cottonwood Pass. The situation becomes inherently unsafe. Eagle County has developed a protocol to enact during I-70 closures. The county’s Road and Bridge Department and Sheriff’s Office places staff at either side of the pass to ensure that vehicles longer than 35 feet do not attempt passage. Further, employees direct traffic in certain sections to reduce the risk of hazardous traffic situations. Nonetheless, accidents still occur. To date, no fatalities have been recorded due to the summer 2021 I-70 closures but several vehicular accidents have occurred. The county also works with the Colorado Department of Transportation and other partners to encourage motorists to use the recommended alternative routes, which never include Cottonwood Pass. Officials also communicate closures to major mapping and technology companies in an attempt to reroute traffic to proper channels. 

Eagle County welcomes federal and state assistance to address the dangers of the public utilizing Cottonwood Pass as an alternative to I-70. Currently, the Colorado National Guard is overseeing traffic control on the Pass. Governor Polis recently requested $116 million in federal emergency aid to rebuild I-70 in Glenwood Canyon and develop safer alternate routes. If the funding is approved, $50 million is slated to cover a study of Cottonwood Pass and to explore safety improvements. County officials will continue to work with local, state, and federal partners to devise solutions to prolonged interstate closures and find a long term solution to the problem.

Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper on Tuesday issued this press release on emergency funds from the Department of Transportation:

oday, Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper released the following statement after the Department of Transportation (DOT) Federal Highway Administration awarded the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) $11.6 million to begin repairs to I-70:

“We’re grateful for the Department of Transportation’s swift action to address this urgent threat to Coloradans’ safety and the state’s economy. CDOT has already done tremendous work to repair the damage to Glenwood Canyon, and we appreciate the speedy support of the federal government to rebuild this critical infrastructure. We look forward to working with the state and administration to ensure that Colorado continues to get the support it needs in the months ahead.” 

Recent mudslides caused extreme damage to I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. Colorado Governor Jared Polis formally authorized CDOT to request emergency resources from the FHWA Emergency Relief program on Friday. Over the weekend, Bennet and Hickenlooper led the Colorado Congressional Delegation in urging the Biden Administration to quickly approve the request. 

FHWA emergency funds can be used to rebuild roads after natural disasters and improve resiliency to harden against future disasters. 

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