CDOT outlines safety improvements to Red Dirt Hill

The five-mile stretch of road from Granby to Tabernash, long considered dangerous by locals, could see construction improvements as early as 2026

First responders at the scene of an accident on U.S. Highway 40 at the west end of Red Dirt Hill in August 2016. County commissioners asked CDOT to conduct a safety study of Red Dirt in 2020. Construction for improvements is slated for 2026.
Archive photo

Red Dirt Hill, which is considered one of the most treacherous stretches of road in Grand County, is slated to undergo safety improvements, thanks to a partnership between Colorado Department of Transportation and county commissioners. Many Grand County drivers have experienced white-knuckle incidents on Red Dirt Hill, whether they are accelerating around steep curves uphill, or are squeezed bumper to bumper during winter whiteouts.

Traffic moves along U.S. Highway 40 on Red Dirt Hill.
Kyle McCabe/Sky-Hi News

The improvements on the five-mile stretch of road between Granby and Tabernash are much needed. According to CDOT data, there have been 150 crashes on that five-mile stretch from January 2014 to June 2019. There were six fatal crashes between January 2014 to December 2019.

In 2008, the community experienced tragedy when Fraser Valley Elementary school Principal Reba Ferguson died in an accident on Red Dirt Hill, which also involved a Granby resident who was airlifted to the hospital. At the time of the accident, CDOT stated that data on the hill showed it was “average” in terms of safety risk.

However, community members and county commissioners felt otherwise.

In 2020, commissioners pressed CDOT to concentrate on improving Red Dirt Hill. The department conducted the Mueller Engineering safety study, which lent some sobering statistics. During the commissioners’ March 14 meeting, CDOT Region 3 East Program Engineer Karen Berdoulay gave the results of the study, as well their next steps to construct improvements. 

According to Berdoulay, the amount of accidents on that stretch of road is now above average for comparable, two-lane undivided highways statewide, based on the 2014-19 timespan.

“What was really interesting is that in the last two years, the number of crashes almost doubled so it really started to increase between 2017 and 2019,” she told commissioners. “What really grabbed our attention was the number of fatal crashes … When we start to see fatal crashes and an uptick of crashes, we start to pay a lot of attention to see what you can do to make it safer.”

This graph represents where the amount of crashes is above average. Where the solid blue is above the pink line, it represents an extremely high number of crashes. In this case, between mile marker 217 and 219.
Colorado Dept. of Transportation/courtesy photo

Berdoulay explained that CDOT was concerned by some of the highway’s features, especially curving climbing lanes where drivers jockey into position before their chance to pass ends. Climbing lanes allow vehicles to pass heavy trucks when there are grades. CDOT concluded that that crashes are most frequent on its climbing lanes.

Eastbound, crashes were most prevalent throughout the uphill climb where the eastbound climbing lane is located. Westbound crashes were most prevalent in a small area between mile marker 220 and 220.5 of the westbound climbing lane.

“We did identify some additional challenges including some of the curves. The tilt of the road, the super elevation isn’t quite right for some of the curve radiuses,” she said. “We also found that some of the radiuses are also pretty tight for a 65-mile-per-hour posting, so that drew our attention as potentially contributing to the safety issues.”

Berdoulay stated the speed limit may potentially be lowered. The commissioners requested a CDOT speed study in 2020, with the understanding that whatever the speed CDOT recommended would be posted. The study will be completed this summer.

“You guys are very aware the speed limit there is 65 miles an hour – it’s pretty steep for that type of roadway between 5 1/2 and 6% grade,” she said. 

Berdoulay added that 85% of drivers on the hill are going 65 mph – leaving 15% not complying with the limit. This sparked a discussion between commissioners on whether the 65-mph posting was appropriate.

“Several members of the public are averse to the speed limit going down – I was not,” said Commissioner Richard Cimino on why commissioners requested the speed study. “I remain not averse to that. I would like to see the speed limit go down. I know people want to get to work, get to kids’ practices but – 65 to 60 or 55 – I’m just warning there may be some public backlash, but I stand by this. Enjoy the good views, drive safe.”

Comissioner Merrit Linke feels that the concern isn’t that the speed limit is too high – it’s that some drivers go too slow on the hill, putting other drivers in precarious situations as they try to pass.

“I think the problem with this particular road is because … it’s steep and trucks are going way slower. I think that sometimes is what leads to accidents because, ‘God, I’ve gotta get to practice I’ve got to pass that truck — whether it’s safe or not I’ve got to get around that truck,'” Linke said.

He stated he’s witnessed heavy trucks, such as concrete and hay trucks, going as slow as 20 mph as cars compete to get around them.

“It becomes a race to get to the top first,” he said.

Regardless of whether the speed limit is lowered, there are several improvements that are approved. One improvement – adding new striping – has already been completed.

Berdoulay stated the other improvements include: adding rumble strips; add and standardize acceleration and deceleration lanes; extend westbound climbing lane; shorten eastbound climbing lane slightly; widen shoulders; add eastbound guardrail; and add lighting at an intersection.

CDOT measured where crashes occurred most frequently (eastbound or westbound), and which resulted in injury or fatality.
Colorado Dept. of Transportation/Courtesy Image

Right now, the only thing delaying safety improvements is funding. The commissioners have funded $400,000 towards the safety study, with CDOT contributing $170,000. Funding for actual design and construction is estimated at $20 million, while CDOT has secured only $9.9 million so far. They have also applied for grants to help fund the $20 million. If they secure a Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant, it could fully fund the project. Since CDOT applied for this grant, they have to wait to see if they receive it in summer 2023 before they can begin spending money on Red Dirt Hill.

The commissioners agreed that, pending the RAISE grant, they are willing to begin the project before the entire $20 million is secured, to lay down at least some improvements. Actual construction will likely begin in 2026.

“Let’s move forward as rapidly as we can,” said Commissioner Randy George. “Hopefully we’ll know about the RAISE grant this summer and then charge forward with or without that money to be ready to make the change, so we don’t have any more wrecks and we don’t have any more fatalities.”

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