Governor asks feds to minimize U.S. 50 closure impacts arising from Little Blue Creek Canyon project

U.S. 50 through Little Blue Creek Canyon is slated for major safety improvements, however, state leadership says the length of proposed daily closures will harm residents and commerce.

The governor’s outreach over a controversial project that would close a portion of U.S. 50 between Montrose and Gunnison for several hours a day may provide badly needed breathing room, Sen. Don Coram said.

The Little Blue Creek project, advanced by the Federal Highway Administration, is slated to begin in April of 2021. The project is to improve safety between mile markers 123 and 127, about 30 miles east of Montrose and 30 miles west of Gunnison.

Although the improvements are needed, the current plan would close U.S. 50 for 19 hours a day, with narrow travel windows — for single-lane traffic — and that is simply not feasible, said Coram, who in September, hosted a public meeting on the project spotlighting the way it will affect residents and commerce.

“I think it’s unreasonable. I don’t think it’s well thought out,” Coram said Monday, reiterating his concerns.

The project bid, which was due this week, has been briefly delayed, Coram said. Earlier this month, Jared Polis stepped in with a letter to the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation, which are spearheading the federally funded project.

In the letter also signed by Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shoshana Lew, Polis asks the agency to make sure the contractor selected will work cooperatively with the state to minimize full closures and fully evaluate how such strategies as night closures for the necessary blasting may be safely done.

Polis said although the state appreciates the millions of grant dollars going into the Little Blue Creek Canyon project — and the safety concerns it is intended to address — the road is “a key arterial” for the Western Slope. The associated closures will cause difficulties for residents and businesses, Polis said.

He said a federal outreach team listened to concerns and has single modified the bid package to include requirements to open the road on weekends and during critical commute times of business days, as well as to expand emergency access. The bid further includes an incentive to accelerate construction completion on the west end to provide access to the Arrowhead subdivision.

“Nonetheless, the planned highway closures will be impactful to locals and frequent users of this section of U.S. 50 and citizens and businesses are reasonably concerned about road access during construction,” Polis wrote.

He particularly cited Arrowhead, which is facing three months “of severe impact” from the closures and the “imperative need to work with the contractor on this project to do everything possible to limit impacts to communities, businesses and residents.”

Polis asked for the feds and the contractor to develop a schedule allowing for more traffic to flow down 50, and that nighttime closures be reconsidered.

The highway administration had determined it is difficult and unsafe to conduct rock blasting at night. Although other work could take place at night, the plan is to conduct blasting and scaling work during daylight hours.

The initial proposal was for single-lane, alternating traffic on the highway from 6:30 — 8:30 a.m.; 12:30 — 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 — 7:30 p.m.

The road would be fully open to two-way traffic on weekends. Weeknight full road closures would be in effect from 7:30 p.m. — 6:30 a.m., April — mid-October, depending on weather.

For Coram, the residents, other officials and Montrose Memorial Hospital representatives who spoke up at his September meeting, that is unacceptable.

Coram does not intend to halt the project outright, but said it needs retooled.

“I think anybody that would stop and think would think about a 19-hour a day closure, with one-way traffic, means we have 2.5 hours each way to get between here and Gunnison. I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation,” Coram said.

He said as it stands, the project would exacerbate economic hardships. The closures would affect businesses such as the Arrowhead Lodge; commerce between the Western Slope and southeastern Colorado; fuel shipments and grocery shipments, as well as affect medical services.

“I look at all the people who come to use the services of Montrose Memorial Hospital. That’s a huge hit on them,” Coram said. “The livestock industry, trying to make those windows to get through, it would be impossible. … We’re not objecting to a full night closure, but five hours of being open a day is totally unreasonable.”

Coram acknowledged the project likely needs to be done, although he said there have been more fatalities on U.S. 550, south of Montrose.

The Colorado Department of Transportation and the federal highway administration show eight fatalities on U.S. 50 through Little Blue Creek Canyon over the past 10 years, as well as 230 crashes between 2000 and 2018.

Polis in his letter also stressed the need for all partners to “go above and beyond” to keep citizens informed. On-time completion is also imperative, he said, warning “the tolerance for error is little” and asking for a contractor with proven project management ability.

“ … across the board, this project is going to depend on a team effort that is focused on delivering results for the people of Colorado and especially the communities on the West Slope,” Polis wrote.

“That means delivering a quality product and it also means executing the project in a way that is focused on doing everything we can to improve the experience of construction for them.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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