Extended I-70 reroute causing headaches in Steamboat
State officials said heavier traffic from vehicle reroutes through the Yampa Valley could cause issues though the start of the ski season.
Extensive damage along Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon likely will cost tens of millions of dollars to repair, and seasonal monsoon rains continue to cause mud and debris flows down wildfire burn scars east of Glenwood Springs.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in a media briefing Monday the goal is to bring I-70 traffic flow back to normal before the ski season when there are less alternative driving routes available during winter. Depending on weather, Colorado Department of Transportation officials are hoping to open Glenwood Canyon to one road of head-to-head traffic within days. The current I-70 closure stretches from Rifle to Dotsero, and repairs could take months depending on weather and safety conditions.
Polis said 4 inches of rain that dropped in five days in the canyon, compared to the normal month-long July rainfall of 2.4 inches, was the trigger that caused extensive debris to flow down last year’s Grizzly Creek Fire scar. That fire, located 1 mile east of Glenwood Springs, started Aug. 10, 2020, burned 32,631 acres and was deemed human-caused, according to InciWeb.
Drivers calling in vehicle complaints about unsafe motorists operating on U.S. Highway 40 in Routt County more than doubled in July compared to July 2020, according to Ryan Adrian, patrol lieutenant with Routt County Sheriff’s Office. Adrian reported that in July 2020, the department received 18 vehicle complaints compared to 41 last month.
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“Drivers calling in other drivers for things like speeding and illegally passing are the most common calls we at the Sheriff’s Office are receiving right now due to the increased traffic from Glenwood Canyon being closed,” Adrian said.
Adrian said traffic on Colorado Highway 131 in South Routt County, although not part of the official reroute, seems to have doubled. He lives near the highway, and he and his young son have been counting lines of back-to-back semi-trucks driving north from Wolcott.
“I’ve never seen 12 semi-trucks in a row on 131 ever in 17 years working for the Sheriff’s Department,” Adrian said.
For residents living near U.S. 40, the increased traffic caused by Glenwood Canyon’s closure is obvious with higher noise levels and difficulty entering and merging with highway traffic. Locals are noticing a need to plan about double the time to drive through Steamboat Springs for errands or appointments during main daytime hours. Side routes such as River Road and Yampa, Oak and 13th streets are seeing increased traffic as well.
Colonel Matthew Packard, Colorado State Patrol chief, said the Patrol has shifted personnel to other state roads including U.S. 40. Packard encouraged all drivers to be patient, noting safety on highways is every driver’s responsibility.
Capt. Ryan Parker, who oversees the Patrol’s five-county regional troop including Routt, said traffic volume increases from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Parker said reckless driver reports have risen significantly through calls to 911 or *CSP. He said though the number of traffic accidents has not increased, the type of accidents has changed to more multi-vehicle crashes rather than single-vehicle accidents.
Parker urged all drivers to “try not to follow too close, and if you need to pass a car going slow do so in a very marked and visible passing zone.”
Laura Soard, marketing director for the Steamboat Springs Chamber, said the increased traffic is benefiting restaurants and gas stations and perhaps some lodging properties. More drivers have been stopping by the Chamber Visitor Center asking for good places to eat lunch or advice on afternoon activities, she said.
Lisa Popovich, executive director of Main Street Steamboat, said business owners are reporting mixed reactions to the increased traffic, ranging from frustration because the traffic makes it difficult for local shoppers to visit downtown to positivity about serving customers who otherwise would not have been in Steamboat.
Both Soard and Popovich said they do not expect a major boost in retail business sales since the stops in town are usually more intentional for gas, rest and food rather than browsing through stores.
City of Steamboat Springs engineer Ben Beall calls the increased traffic “an important stress test of our existing transportation system.”
“It allows us to see the benefit of investing in ways to both reduce vehicles moving around the city at the same time that we may need to strategically invest in needed improvements to plan for a future that may have more residents and visitors traveling around,” Beall said.
Some businesses in Hayden, located roughly halfway on the 220-mile reroute from Rifle to Silverthorne, are seeing more visitors. A staff member at the Kum & Go station in Hayden said business has doubled during the canyon closure.
Hayden Mercantile Owner Danny Hayden noted business is up at the grocery store by 5% to 10% since the store is not located directly on the highway.
“It’s hard to cross the highway. I call it I-40 now,” Hayden said.
Elise Thatcher, northwest Colorado regional communications manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation, reported 13 closure events on I-70 between West Rifle and Dotsero from June 29 to Aug. 2 due to slides, flows, flooding or flood potentials. Severe slides on July 29 and 30 prompted the extended closure that’s currently in place.
“CDOT continues to focus on clearing debris on I-70 in Glenwood Canyon and assessing the damage from the mudslides,” Thatcher said Tuesday afternoon. “There is a chance there will be more mudslides today due to rain.”
During the previous extended closure Aug. 10-24, 2020, due to the Grizzly Creek Fire, the north detour route through Steamboat experienced a 33% increase in daily traffic volumes from 12,000 vehicles to 16,000, Thatcher said. At that time CDOT was encouraging drivers to avoid the northern route and to use the southern route due to construction issues.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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