What you see is what you get on Independence Pass during the Interstate 70 closure | SkyHiNews.com

What you see is what you get on Independence Pass during the Interstate 70 closure

State Patrol says extra troopers and education will be relied to try to keep traffic flowing on Highway 82

Scott Condon
Aspen Times
Traffic stretches from downtown Aspen on Main St. to Highway 82 as people leave to go down valley after work on Monday, August 2, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Colorado State Patrol will rely on education and extra staffing to try to keep traffic moving over Independence Pass while Interstate 70 is closed, but the head of the agency ruled out tools such as alternating one-way traffic through the Narrows.

Col. Matthew Packard, chief of CSP, said during a news conference with Gov. Jared Polis on Monday that extra troopers have been shifted to routes being used as alternatives to I-70.

The goal, he said, is “quicker clearance of incidents as they may come up.”

Some motorists have criticized the state government for not being more active in taming the traffic surging over the high-altitude pass with multiple twists and turns on Highway 82. The Colorado Department of Transportation diverts eastbound traffic on I-70 at West Rifle onto a designated, northern detour, but savvy drivers and those using navigational tools are using Highway 6 to get back on the interstate to access alternate routes such as Highway 82 and the county road system from the Roaring Fork Valley floor to Gypsum via Cottonwood Pass.

A Colorado Department of Transportation employee talks with a truck driver on Friday morning at the Independence Pass gate east of Aspen. Semitrucks and vehicles longer than 35 feet are not allowed on Highway 82 over the Pass. These three truckers had to turn around and were not fined. (David Krause / The Aspen Times)

CDOT has stationed personnel at either side of Independence Pass, at least occasionally, to force big rigs and other vehicles over 35 feet in length to turn around. Roaring Fork Valley resident Dan Beyer posted a comment on Polis’ Facebook page Monday asking the state to also install a system where one-way traffic would alternate through the Narrows — two short sections of Highway 82 where the road is barely wide enough for two vehicles. Rookie drivers and even some veterans lose their nerve and freeze up in those stretches because of the tight confines.

Packard dismissed the idea in Monday’s news conference. He said the state patrol and transportation department are working with their contacts in the commercial trucking industry to advise them to direct traffic onto out-of-state alternatives such as Interstate 80. For the big rigs that enter the state on I-70, word about the Glenwood Canyon closure is spread at port-of-entry stations, Packard said.

CSP also is advising recreational vehicles drivers to check restrictions on their intended routes and make sure they can abide by length and width restrictions (any vehicles longer than 35 feet are prohibited on Independence Pass and face a $1,300 fine).

“I would of course ask that anybody that’s out there and particularly on those corridors that they are patient and that they drive extra safe because there are extra folks out there,” Packard said. “Everybody is going to have to take some extra responsibility in making sure people are getting where they need to be within our state.”

With the increased traffic volume, bad luck can lead to lengthy delays on Independence Pass. The Pass was closed for two hours Sunday evening when a BMW passenger car experienced transmission problems just below the upper Narrows, according to Parker Lathrop, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office director of operations.

Lathrop said there was no indication that semi-trucks made it over the Pass on the busy weekend. The Sheriff’s Office asked CDOT to make sure Highway 82 is continuously staffed on the Lake County or east side because the impacts are felt where the road narrows on the Pitkin County or west side.

“Obviously with I-70 being closed, it’s been a challenge,” Lathrop said.

Pitkin County representatives also have asked CDOT to reinforce the message to Google Maps and other navigational aid providers that Highway 82 isn’t an option for big rigs. Lathrop said he spent 45 minutes talking to truckers on Highway 82 on Sunday and found many of them to be Eastern Europeans with limited English-speaking ability. He was relaying to them that the road to Rifle and beyond is open.

The problem isn’t going to clear up anytime soon. Polis strongly suggested Monday that I-70 will be closed for weeks while CDOT removes debris from multiple mudslides, assesses and then repairs damage to the interstate highway decks.

“We don’t yet know the full extent of the damage, so I’d give a range. I would say it’s a few days to a few weeks,” Polis said. “Best case is a few days. More likely getting into the weeks category.”

In the long term, Cottonwood Pass could be identified as part of a solution to what will likely be an ongoing problem.

CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew noted at Monday’s news conference that roads in the Eagle and Garfield county networks comprise Cottonwood Pass rather than a state highway.

“That said, we understand it is one of the most efficient alternate routes available,” she said. “There’s a long-term conversation about the viability of that route and how it plays into our discussions. Right now, we’re focused on the immediate things we need to get to over the next few weeks to keep traffic moving as efficiently as possible under the circumstances.”

Like Highway 82 over Independence Pass, Cottonwood Pass is closed for winters.

Cottonwood was considered as the route for the interstate but ruled out in the final environmental impact statement released in March 1972. Cottonwood Pass would have required a continuous 6% grade over 8 miles, according to a document prepared for CDOT in January 2019 by the firm Mead & Hunt. Cottonwood Pass also would have added 9.4 miles to the interstate stretch and required additional, costly right-of-way acquisition.

Another option that was considered crossed the Flat Tops area north of Glenwood Springs.

“Each alignment extended through an environmentally sensitive area but ultimately the EIS concluded that the Glenwood Canyon option was the only feasible option and was shorter and cheaper, and would have the least environmental impact of the three alignments,” the Mead & Hunt report said.

(Aspen Times reporter Jason Auslander contributed to this report.)


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