At its Sept. 18 board meeting, Garfield County commissioners received a preview of a draft report by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) Region 3 staff on suggested safety improvements to Cottonwood Pass, the rural county road that links Gypsum in Eagle County with CO Highway 82 in the Roaring Fork Valley. The draft report, the Cottonwood Pass Concept Design, lists 14 locations — eight in Garfield and six in Eagle — that have been identified by both counties and CDOT as areas for improvements.
Impetus for the study, begun in June 2022, was prompted in part by periods of dramatic increases in traffic on the road as motorists on I-70 sought alternative routes during closures of the interstate in Glenwood Canyon — especially the extensive ones during the summer of 2021. Another factor appears to have been increased federal interest, notably the introduction by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (CD3) in April 2022 of a bill (ultimately unsuccessful) to “conduct a study on the significant improvements and potential alternatives” to I-70 when the canyon is closed that was focused largely on Cottonwood Pass.
Karen Berdoulay, CDOT Region 3 program engineer and project manager for the report, gave a presentation to the board that focused specifically on the eight locations in Garfield. She had given a similar report to the Eagle County commissioners on the six locations there the week before.
Five of the eight identified slight modifications to smooth curves, widen the road and improve sight lines; two included adding guard rails where there were steep drop-offs. The other three involved realignments of intersections along Catherine Store Road: at Cattle Creek Road, Paradise Drive and Hwy 82.
The Cattle Creek Road project, with two proposed options, was estimated as the most expensive of the eight: about $3 million (option 1) or a little over half of that (option 2). The impetus there was to reduce southbound driver confusion as to which road to take; Catherine Store Road has been designated by the Garfield commissioners as the preferred route from the pass to Hwy. 82.
The draft report stated, reasserted by Berdoulay in her presentation, that the pass “is not an endorsed detour route for Interstate 70 traffic in the event of a Glenwood Canyon closure [but] is a vital connection for local residents” traveling between Gypsum and the Valley. Thus, the focus of the study, while based on improving driver safety, also stated as “core values”: respect for the corridor’s current character; minimal impact on nearby wildlife habitat; and feedback throughout the process from residents and other “core stakeholders” along the route.
Opposition to the plan
In a conversation with The Sopris Sun, Karen Moculeski, president of Keep Missouri Heights Rural (KMOHR), voiced KMOHR’s opposition to the plan. The chief concerns were that any improvements to the road would invite motorists to speed even more than they do now, and that not enough emphasis was being placed on it remaining a road primarily for local use.
When asked, Moculeski did concede that “locals probably speed more” than those using it as an alternative to I-70. But, she said, “If everybody obeyed the speed limits, there wouldn’t be a problem.” Commenting on instances when CDOT proposed two options for some of the locations (especially in Eagle County), she noted that there was “no third option: do nothing.” She added that instead of spending money on Cottonwood Pass, it could be used to further “harden” the canyon against debris slides that close the road.
At the conclusion of Berdoulay’s presentation, the commissioners’ brief response was summed up by Tom Jankovsky: “Our priority here is to support Eagle County on Blue Hill. Until that happens, Cottonwood Pass remains as it is today. The first improvements need to happen in Eagle County.”
Indeed, Eagle County has decided to go ahead with improvements to the Blue Hill section, the most dangerous portion of the road and the most expensive and one taking the longest to fix. Because the road is maintained by the two counties, they must pay for any improvements. CDOT, however, has offered to help Eagle secure funding, notably federal grants. Elise Thatcher, CDOT’s communications manager for Region 3, told The Sun that although they were not successful on one proposal, “CDOT also submitted two more grant applications with funding defined for Cottonwood Pass [and] is hoping to hear the results by early 2024.”
When Thatcher was asked for further comments on the draft concept design report, she said that CDOT was “holding on doing an interview” until the final report was released “sometime this fall.”
The full draft report can be viewed at www.bit.ly/CottonwoodPassDraft