It’s pothole filling season in Colorado, and it feels like it will never end

Cassandra Ballard
Post Independent
A crew works on road improvements to Interstate 70 between Rifle and Silt in May, 2023.
Ray Erku/Post Independent

The Colorado joke seems to be that there is traffic all winter due to weather, and traffic all summer due to road construction from the weather. 

Colorado is already expected to have a lot of wear and tear from changing weather, especially on the Western Slope, but it seems like the construction is never ending.

This year’s weather was particularly hard on roadways. 

For some, it seems like the Colorado Department of Transportation could spend more on infrastructure to keep roads safe throughout the year. For CDOT, the repairs they do are specific for the region and weather. 

“It’s the roads that are causing these drivers to drive the way that they do,” said Michael Musser, commercial truck driver and owner of Blue Ocean Services LLC, referring to the constant closures in Glenwood Canyon. 

As a truck driver, he said he has to use the whole road or the dotted line just to feel safe when driving, and that having a restriction on commercial vehicles using the left lane is tough when it is the only good lane. 

He was especially upset with the Glenwood Canyon closures because he felt they were caused by the poor road quality. Although potholes can’t be properly repaired until the weather is consistently warm, he thinks the infrastructure should be repaired with better material so that it isn’t a yearly fix.

Musser lives in Garfield County, but drives throughout the United States, and for him, Colorado roads are the worst. He said he knows when he enters Colorado just by the condition of the roads, and he thinks it puts drivers in unnecessary danger. 

The damage the highways and potholes Colorado causes to his truck are not worth constant repairs, he said, and the shape of the roads cause him to lose a lot of money.

“I’m revoking my authority because I cannot afford to operate my truck,” he said. 

Two states he compared Colorado roads to were Utah and Wyoming, saying that their geography and weather is similar to Colorado, but they don’t struggle with the same road damage. 

What the engineers say

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) presented a 2021 report card to grade infrastructure in each state, and according to the report card Colorado received a C- in road infrastructure, Utah received a B+ and Wyoming received a C. 

Though the report also states that, in Colorado, 44% of roads are in good condition as compared to the national average of 28%.

The report also states that 22% of Colorado roads are in poor condition, and each motorist pays $651 per year in costs due to driving on roads in need of repair, while Utah also has 22% of roads in poor condition and residents pay $709 per year in costs due to driving on roads in need of repair.

Only 5% of Wyoming roads are in poor condition, and motorists pay $295 a year, but low population is a big factor.

The state of Colorado has some of the most difficult roads to maintain because of the high amount of mountain passes and changes in elevation, the report states. Population is another factor in the wear and tear the roads in each state receives. 

Colorado has a population of more than 5.8 million, Utah has more than 3.3 million and Wyoming has a slightly higher population than 577,000, according to the 2020 Census. 

Colorado also has the 12th lowest state gas tax in the country, causing Colorado to rely more heavily on federal funding for construction projects, according to the CDOT website and the report card. 

The combination of high population, high road congestion and more required road repair, with the low gas tax is another factor in the state’s ability to fund road infrastructure. 

Overall road infrastructure 

From driving in the different states, Musser said he notices that in Colorado, CDOT just seems to fill potholes without rebuilding the roadways. He said from his perspective the materials CDOT uses are cheaper than states like Utah. 

Like using concrete for their highways, while Colorado typically relies on asphalt.

“Traditionally Colorado state roadways have asphalt surfaces because crews can conduct resurfacing projects relatively easily,” Elise Thatcher, region three communications manager for CDOT, said. “Concrete roads are more expensive to repair and don’t necessarily hold up better in mountain conditions. This includes the truck tire chain damage that takes place each winter.”

CDOT does continue to evaluate the most appropriate choice, she said. 

“New concrete slabs were placed in a recent project in Grand Junction that improved safety at a busy intersection in town,” she said. “After review, it was determined that concrete was a better material for anticipated wear and tear in that location.”

CDOT has an annual budget of $1.55 billion, according to a CDOT news release. $747 million goes just toward maintaining, sustaining a C+ road surface grade. Another 14%, $209 million, of the budget is directly passed through to counties and cities for local projects, the website states. 

The ASCE report card states a lower grade because it includes locally-owned road infrastructure along with state- and federally-owned roadways. 

Thatcher addressed the infrastructure CDOT will be working on.

“Thanks to transportation modernization legislation passed in 2021, Colorado is making sustained progress to improve our existing infrastructure so that it is safe and reliable for our residents and visitors,” Thatcher said. “CDOT recently worked with the Colorado Transportation Commission to address the sections of interstate in most urgent need of attention.”

One area of local interest for Garfield County is nine miles of Interstate 70 from Silt to Rifle to replace Diamond Grind with Slab at an estimated cost of $12 million.

“We are taking further steps to deal with stretches of road that suffered the most from an especially cold and snowy winter,” she said.

The Gov. Jared Polis Administration did invest $45 million this year to restore roads after the harsh winter.

Bridge Joints

Musser said he is also concerned that he never sees CDOT working on highway bridge joints each year like he does in the other mountainous states, while Thatcher said that bridge joints are all made with different designs and materials, making it hard to compare them from state to state. 

Some of the worst sections of the highway system that Musser encounters are bridge joints, especially on the Western Slope, he said. 

“They are also subjected to different kinds of traffic and weather,” Thatcher said. “With these factors in mind, bridge joints can last from three years to more than 30 years. Bridges are inspected every two years to evaluate the condition of each bridge. The entire structure is inspected, which includes the bridge joints. CDOT must plan and alert the traveling public to prepare for traffic impacts when bridge joints are replaced.”

Musser said he is completely fed up with Colorado road infrastructure, and he thinks CDOT chooses to blame everyone else for road issues instead of taking responsibility. He said he’ll be moving out of the state soon and doesn’t want to come back. 

“I’m done supplying the state with goods and putting my life at risk,” he said.

This story is from Post Independent.

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