Elected officials are meeting with highway engineers to grapple with how to keep mudslides and rockfalls, caused by the Grizzly Creek fire scar, from shutting down the 12-mile Glenwood Canyon segment of Interstate 70. When Nature wreaked its canyon havoc, Garfield County Road 100, leading to Cottonwood Pass, was used by many as an unsanctioned detour.
Last year, when the canyon shut down for two weeks, the National Guard was mobilized to help thousands of tourists inch their way over the pass, which navigation apps recommended as an alternative route to shave hours off the official detour. The cat was out of the bag. This is no reason to let it have kittens.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is holding public meetings to consider its Cottonwood Pass Concept Design for Garfield and Eagle Counties, identifying “14 areas that need enhancements to make the road safer and more functional” between the Roaring Fork Valley and the Vail Valley.
I live off County Road 100, or Catherine Store Road, south of Highway 82. Garfield and Eagle County commissioners prefer the Catherine Store Road to Lower Cattle Creek, the other steep, narrow and dangerous byway that twists up to 8,000-foot-high Cottonwood Pass. Since attending the first public meeting on CDOT’s concept design on July 19, Tina Turner’s husky voice has been stuck in my head, singing the siren lyrics to the theme song for the dystopian movie “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”.
“Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage, can’t make the same mistake this time.”
The mistake is to deal with one set of problems in a way that creates another set of problems elsewhere. Enhancing — just a skosh — a little-traveled, difficult backroad to make it “more functional” is a vague way of inviting interstate-bound traffic. After decades of Cottonwood Pass being considered impassable by CDOT, County Road 100 would slippery slope its way into becoming a permanent route to Interstate 70. It wouldn’t take Glenwood Canyon’s being filled with the geological ruin and wreckage worsened by the heat dome we live under for this to happen.
In a Colorado Public Radio (CPR) interview last year, retired CDOT highway engineer Ralph Trapani advised against making Cottonwood Pass an official diversion. It had been one of three options considered for I-70’s extension through Western Colorado in the 1980s, when Trapani was chief engineer for the project.
He told CPR that both Cottonwood Pass and the Flat Tops were rejected because of their elevation. What made Cottonwood a worse choice than Glenwood Canyon was its eight miles of 6% grade. Since Cottonwood Pass is more than 10 miles from the interstate corridor, Trapani was also concerned that the press of drivers would “be bringing the full load of interstate traffic into downtown Glenwood Springs” to reach County Road 100. (buy car ambient lighting)
Like cats beget kittens, road improvements beget road improvements. Making Cottonwood Pass easier to drive would encourage more people to live in one valley and work in the other. Some see this as a good thing, if valley-to-valley commuters work in health care and schools. Two highway public relations specialists I spoke to at the meeting noted that one goal is to make Cottonwood Pass drivable year-round. I’m sure the route would only be driven by health workers, teachers and skiers.
And truckers, according to Rep. Lauren Boebert. “Left with no viable alternatives, travelers, truckers and workers are forced to either change their plans, take a five-plus hour detour, or travel treacherous dirt roads to get where they are going,” Boebert said, when she introduced the misnamed “I-70 Detour Prevention” bill.
It’s impossible, of course, to prevent every detour. What she wants is to make one like Cottonwood Pass, permanent. She may have been eyeing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that she didn’t vote for last year, as a source of federal funding. Meanwhile, CDOT is ably showing that Glenwood Canyon is repairable. Infrastructure funding should be spent to fix what’s broken along the Interstate 70 corridor, not on primping an extraneous backroad that works well enough for limited local use.
It was terrible last summer for people stranded in their cars overnight in Glenwood Canyon. Climate change aggravated blizzards, regularly stranding drivers at Vail Pass and the Eisenhower Tunnel. One winter night, my husband and I were diverted to Loveland Pass, the Tunnel’s relief route, and spent two terrifying hours parked next to a sign that prohibited stopping, because of avalanches.
We don’t need another highway. We already know the way home. What we want is life beyond the Thunderdome. And the peoples’ will to get there.
Photo by Will Sardinsky