A mountain of an issue: Local officials push for reopening of Needles Eye Tunnel, providing a second thoroughfare over the Continental Divide
It’s been almost two decades since vehicles have driven through the Needle’s Eye Tunnel on Rollins Pass, but that hasn’t stopped Grand County from making several attempts to reopen the pass and restore the historic corridor.
In its 113-year lifespan, the Needle’s Eye Tunnel, which sits at the top of James Peak, has been abandoned, rediscovered and collapsed twice, most recently in 1990. Since that collapse, the tunnel has been closed to traffic, which prevents visitors from traveling from Boulder to Winter Park via Rollins Pass.
However, recently, both Grand County and the towns of Winter Park and Fraser have expressed a desire to reopen the tunnel and restore the pass in the county. Town master plans and officials have taken steps to start the conversation.
Currently, the portion of Rollins Pass Road in Grand County is open to recreation and vehicles, but only up to the tunnel. The road also runs through Gilpin and Boulder Counties, but they have closed the road on their side.
Grand County Commissioner Rich Cimino said the county is interested in reopening the tunnel and making the road accessible to vehicles because of the opportunity for it to benefit recreation and local economies.
“The county wants another recreational opportunity, the opportunity to drive from Grand County to Boulder,” Cimino said. “Recreation is one reason, economy is another. I’m sure a lot of people from Denver and Boulder would come into Grand County through that route.”
In the county’s master plan, commissioners highlighted the desire for more ingress and egress routes and Cimino said reopening Rollins Pass would contribute to that goal, so the commissioners dedicated about $5,000 in next year’s budget to help repair the road, as well as some in-kind donations.
“Next summer, we have some budget resources to do some improvements on that road,” Cimino said.
He also highlighted the history of the area and its importance to the county.
For this same reason, Winter Park Mayor Jimmy Lahrman said the town identified it as a priority in its Imagine Winter Park Master Plan.
“We feel that the historical significance would lend itself to the authenticity of our community,” Lahrman said. “It speaks to how our community settled in that era of the railroad and so we feel closing things out to certain parts of the public who couldn’t access that via a hike or a bike ride, that they would need motorized transportation, is not the philosophy that we believe in.”
Lahrman cited the James Peak Wilderness and Protection Area Act, passed by Congress and approved by President George W. Bush in 2002, which stated that the relevant counties could request help from the federal government to repair the Rollins Pass road.
In the past few months, Winter Park, Fraser and the county have reached out to Senators Michael Bennett and Cory Gardner, as well as Boulder and Gilpin counties, to initiate conversations about reopening the pass and restoring the tunnel.
“There’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of different players and to get everybody on the same page is turning out to be a monumental task,” Lahrman said.
Surrounding entities not too keen on reopening Rollins Pass
In September, Cimino, Lahrman and the Mayor of Fraser Philip Vandernail took Gilpin County Commissioners on a tour of the Grand County side of Rollins Pass Road. Lahrman has also petitioned Gardner to reopen the road, but he said that petition is stalled as of right now.
However, the other counties involved, Boulder and Gilpin, do not share Grand County’s perspective that the tunnel should be reopened.
Michelle Krezek, deputy to the Boulder County Board of Commissioners, said there were a number of reasons Boulder County doesn’t support reopening the tunnel, including cost and safety issues.
When the tunnel collapsed in 1990, Boulder was sued for liabilities and ended up paying a “not unsubstantial” amount due to injuries stemming from the collapse. Krezek said concerns for public safety remain a factor in the county’s opposition to reopening the tunnel.
Krezek explained that the county is still paying for flood recovery from the 2013 floods and doesn’t have the money it would take to repair the tunnel and road.
“We’re still in the middle of flood recovery and this year is our largest year for spending for road projects,” Krezek said. “And frankly, our commissioners feel like it’s not a good use of public money to open up a road that’s only going to be in use for several months out of the year.”
Reid Armstrong, public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, said a 2013 analysis showed it would cost about $10 million to repair the road and the trestles, not including the cost of repairing the tunnel.
Armstrong said the Forest Service’s role is to support whatever decision the counties make.
“The Forest Service values its relationships with the three counties that Rollins Pass Road traverses and we’re prepared to support the counties with any requests related to the road if they agree on a course of action,” Armstrong said.
Sky-Hi News reached out to a representative of Gilpin County, but had not heard back as of press time.
With the involved counties at odds with one another, discussions on reopening the tunnel and restoring the road from Boulder to Winter Park are at a stand still. Krezek stated that Boulder County plans to send a formal letter of opposition to the state’s represenatatives clarifying their current position.
“If people want to reconstitute the meetings and talk about the issues, we’re happy to participate, but at this point there hasn’t been any new information that’s changed any of the issues that we’ve had with this 10 years ago,” Krezek said.
Lahrman and Cimino said they will continue to have discussions with the relevant stakeholders since it is a priority for the residents of Winter Park and Grand County.
“I’m confident that Grand County thinks the benefits are worth it,” Cimino said. “The costs are there, they really are, it is going to be costly, but I’m sure our population supports it and the economic benefits, the recreational and historical benefits would be worth it. But we respect that right now, Gilpin and Boulder don’t think the costs are worth and we understand that, so we’re just going to have to keep talking and see if we can find a way to negotiate a solution.”
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