Residents affected by the forthcoming Little Blue Creek Canyon project on U.S. 50 expressed worries over a hit to their businesses, as well as traffic, during a Monday public meeting.
The Colorado Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration are spearheading the project, which is set to begin next April. The road — between mile markers 123 and 127 on U.S. 50 — would be closed for 19 hours a day with single-lane, alternating traffic open during certain sections of the day for up to two years, limiting the transport of goods.
The project’s purpose is to improve safety and implement a number of safety measures during the project’s construction, said Jason Smith, program engineer for Region 3 of CDOT. Smith cited 241 crashes in total along the section of the highway as a reason for the project.
The $40 million project is of high priority to the Gunnison Valley Transportation Committee and should serve as a major detour route during I-70 closures.
A number of elected officials from Montrose, Delta, Ouray and Gunnison, as well as CDOT representatives, were in attendance. State Sen. Don Coram, who hosted the meeting, shared his concerns.
“This road closed 19 hours a day in this is not practical,” Coram said. “It is not possible. I think there are safety issues concerned with it.”
Coram said patients from Montrose and Gunnison are consistently transported through the canyon, as well as staff if there is a need at a hospital. Leann Tobin, chief marketing officer at Montrose Memorial Hospital, spoke to these concerns during public testimony.
“Our biggest concern is delay for care and treatment of our patients,” she said. Gunnison Valley Health Hospital, a critical access hospital, often sends patients who need specialty care to Montrose since MMH offers a higher level of care. Traffic due to closures could affect timely transport.
Residents in the Arrowhead community were the most outspoken during the meeting and expressed concern with CDOT and its willingness to move ahead with the project without discussing other options.
Duane Redmond, an Arrowhead resident and member of the fire department, during public testimony asked members of the crowd from Arrowhead to stand. Shortly after, the majority of the crowd rose.
“This is the impact the project could have on Arrowhead,” Redmond said.
Rather than spend $40 million on the project, Redmond proposed speed control as a solution. Placing warning signs throughout the canyon, particularly on the east side of the canyon, could slow people down, and lead to fewer accidents.
Redmond was followed by Charles Fischer, also of Arrowhead.
“Under the current framework, trying to visualize how this traffic is going to move through in this allotted amount of time, I just don’t see it happening the way it’s laid out,” Fischer said. “How long is the line of traffic going to be? Where are they going to line up? Is it going to be half an hour worth of traffic before you can get onto highway 50 from the Alpine Plateau?”
Fischer said he understands a need is there due to safety issues but hopes CDOT can revisit the plan and search for different solutions.
A few members of the public expressed economic concerns during testimony, including Patrick Amie, Arrowhead resident and owner of Arrowhead Mountain Lodge with his wife, Jessica. Since purchasing the lodge in 2013, Amie has seen a high amount of growth for the business. But with the proposal, all the growth would be reversed.
“Were getting ready to see the exact opposite of that, and our business and all the money that we put into it will be for naught,” Amie said.
Amie criticized elected officials for not listening to their constituents and “feeling like they need to spend the money now.” Also, all the food that’s served out of the lodge is picked up by Amie. With safety a priority for his customers, Amie said its important to bring back fresh meat to the lodge. The traffic due to single-lane closure would not only spoil the meat, but hurt business as more time spent on the road means less food available to serve his guests.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. Here’s the metaphorical punch in the face,” Amie said. “We need to rethink this plan. We need to slow down people in these canyons. Once you widen these corners and straighten things out, these people that are already speeding, already passing on top of the yellow lines and driving illegally and irresponsibly, you’re just enabling more of the same actions that are going to cause more of the same problems.
“There’s very easy ways to fix this that wouldn’t ruin agriculture and trucking and power.”
Don Suppes, Delta County commissioner, encouraged elected officials to work with CDOT to come up with a plan that would allow the project to move forward, and added that Delta County supports the project.
“With revising the plan a little bit and making this work, I think we can change a few of the travel plans and make this project happen,” Suppes said. “Delta County does supports this project because we know this is part of the east-west corridor that everybody in this room needs to be concerned about.”
Montrose County Commissioner Roger Rash said the timeliness of the project needs to be considered.
“It takes years to get this money to build these projects, and this is a one time shot,” Rash said. “If we don’t do this now, we’re going to be stuck with that highway, and it’s very dangerous.”
Jim Gelsomini, Arrowhead fire chief, asked CDOT officials to reconsider the options and use the public meeting to continue future dialogue.
Near the end of the meeting, an Arrowhead resident asked Steve Harelson, CDOT’s chief engineer, asked if CDOT had analyzed the possibility of other options.
Harelson said a bridge option had been analyzed, and a two-mile, two-lane tunnel isn’t feasible as it would cost $1 billion dollars, CDOT’s annual budget, and said the project is under advertisement and CDOT is “ready to go,” though discussions of construction planning are still active.
Harelson also added he doesn’t believe the “shoulder shortfalls in the canyon can be cured with pure signage.”
Coram said although elected officials are late addressing the project — they were not involved at the start as CDOT is an enterprise not controlled by the general assembly — he believes there’s still “wiggle room” as input is being provided to look at different options.