Editor’s note: This was selected by our editorial staff as one of the top stories of 2021.
2021 commenced large-scale improvements to U.S. 50’s Little Blue Canyon Creek, a considerable undertaking from the Federal Highway Administration and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
The project, affectionately known as “Little Blue,” began construction between mileposts 123 and 127 in the spring, with plans for realignment, widening the highway to two 12-foot travel lanes with the addition of wide-paved shoulders, guardrail replacement, additional rockfall catchment area, new signage and striping.
The route provides access to various federal lands, including The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Curecanti National Recreational Area, BLM land, and USFS land.
Little Blue’s construction launch was preceded with a detailed tour of the project route in lieu of a formal presentation for stakeholders. Senator Don Coram, Transportation Commissioner Kathy Hall and David Coker, chairman of a governmental affairs committee in Montrose, attended the early April tour as stakeholders, following the CDOT project team along the four mile route.
Federal Highway Administration-Central Federal Lands Chief of Engineering Curtis Scott and American Civil Constructors Mountain West (ACC) Project Manager John Butcher spearheaded the tour with CDOT members to outline Little Blue’s future.
The tour addressed region-wide concerns that the project would rid the area of the beloved canyon. Montrose Resident Engineer Raelene Shelly explained that the project aims to help travelers drive the route without worrying about what’s ahead of them. It should also potentially eliminate or reduce the average yearly fatalities and accidents located around mile marker 124.
CDOT provided detours for the extensive closures throughout the construction season, including an alternative route along HWY 92, where additional safety elements were placed for high influxes of traffic.
Little Blue’s project team planned out two “seasons” for construction. The first season wrapped up on Dec. 23, with work hitting pause until spring arrives.
Shelly dedicated part of the first half of the construction season to installing cell phone coverage for the area. With lane closures and detours, the engineer anticipated delays and stops for drivers while they waited to pass through the construction zone.
“We will use CDOT’s system to install wifi through that area so people will have wifi to use Facebook, email, cellular phone calls, wifi calling, text messages, etc.,” Shelly explained.
Construction may be on hiatus, but the winter season will be dedicated to cleaning and restoring any road damage brought on by previous months’ demolition.
Once spring arrives, drivers can expect freshly paved roads.
The enterprise, however, has thus far proven to be a treacherous undertaking. Road worker Ricardo Batista of Florissant tragically lost his life in late June when a boulder the size of a car tumbled off the cliffside and crushed the cab of his mini excavator on U.S. 50 mile marker 125.
Gunnison County Coroner Michael Barnes said that Batista died almost instantly due to multiple traumatic injuries.
“It’s a tragic scenario where this rock fell down on him when he was working,” Barnes said.
Emergency responders still worked to reach Batista in the excavator’s cab following the incident, but found him deceased, according to Adam Murdie, Gunnison County’s undersheriff.
“It was just an unfortunate accident that occurred due to the work they were doing. The drilling and blasting destabilizes the whole side of the hill,” Murdie said.
Overall, stakeholders of Little Blue are eager to introduce a safer roadway to drivers. The transportation commissioner was “pleased” with the progress made at the time of the tour, acknowledging the difficulty in accommodating everyone in such a large-scale endeavor.
“I look forward to how much it will improve the safety for drivers once it’s done,” said Hall. “There’s been so much attention to getting it done right, and so as someone representing this area, I’m very appreciative.”
Little Blue is expected to reach completion in November 2022.
Cassie Knust is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.