Fires, mudslides and the extended closure of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon have created a perfect storm of economic and transportation problems for western Colorado that are likely to reverberate for years.

The disruptions to travel, supply lines, drops in tourism bookings, deliveries of gasoline, food and merchandise and problems caused by people unfamiliar with the area trying to navigate around the closure have added to the already-strained emergency response assets and frayed pretty much everybody’s tempers.

Hardest hit by economic and traffic woes are the towns along the Roaring Fork Valley from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and workers who have to commute over Cottonwood Pass between Gypsum and Glenwood Springs to get to and from work.

Gregg Macaluso, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business who teaches supply chain strategy and innovation, said the closure of one of only five major east-west interstate shipping routes magnified supply chain problems that were already impacted by an ongoing shortage of truck drivers and by the COVID-19 pandemic that have been affecting supply chains not only locally, but nationally for several years.

On July 29 and again on Aug. 1, unprecedented monsoon rains dumped as much as 2 to 4 inches of rain in an hour on the Grizzly Creek burn scar, causing multiple mudslides. At Blue Gulch the rainwater gathering more than 3,400 feet above the canyon floor soared over a 200-foot cliff half a mile north of I-70 and poured into the ravine below. When the cascade of mud and rock hit the highway, both upper and lower decks of the roadway were covered with up to 10 feet of debris. Damage to the highway is extensive.

The storms have been characterized as a “500-year event,” which means that climatologists calculate there is a 0.02% chance of an event of that magnitude every year.

On Monday, Gov. Jared Polis and Department of Transportation Director Shoshana Lew requested $116 million in disaster relief funds from the Federal Highway Administration to repair I-70, improve a bypass route and mitigate hazards on the slopes above the highway. The Federal Highway Administration responded Tuesday to the request, one business day later, with a grant of $11.6 million under its quick-release process, 10% of the total Polis requested.

Glenwood Springs, on the west end of the canyon, was cut off from easy access by travelers and tourists as well as suppliers, resulting in an overall business downturn with cancelled reservations and empty hotel rooms and some empty shelves in stores.

Glenwood Springs Mayor John Godes says tourism has taken a huge hit, what with the fire closing the canyon last year, the COVID-19 pandemic and now the mudslides.

“I-70 is a major artery throughout the state, so statewide, region-wide, within our local region and the region of western states, it's a very disruptive natural occurrence,” Godes said.

“It's really, really hurt our economy,” said Godes. “Hotel rooms are vacant. The impact to the economy is very similar to the Grizzly Creek fire when it shut down I-70. Glenwood Springs was a ghost town. We rely on visitors, the local economy relies on that. Not having that ability to get people from the Front Range or wherever to be able to come out here to raft, to fly-fish, to soak in the hot springs, it's really crippling for our economy.”

Godes wasn’t able to say precisely what the fiscal impact of this long-term closure might be, but he compared it to the fire that set up the situation the city is facing now.

“It's tough to quantify it in actual dollar amounts,” said Godes. “We probably won't know until July and August sales tax numbers come in. That will be sometime in September and October.”

“I do know that when the Grizzly Creek fire hit, in the middle of COVID, there was a lot of things that were going on, obviously, but it cratered our sales tax revenue by about 20%,” Godes continued. “So any prolonged disruption of I-70 is just very difficult for us to get through.”

While there are economic winners and losers in Glenwood, Godes said his expectations for the public stopping to spend money in Glenwood haven’t panned out, and the increase in traffic on Highway 82, which serves the entire Roaring Fork valley, caused by travelers bypassing the northern detour by using Independence Pass into Aspen haven’t helped much either.

Lisa Langer, director of tourism promotion for the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce, said, “It’s devastating to our businesses to hear words like 'severely damaged' and 'disaster.' When we hear those words, it makes it sound like we’re not open, and Glenwood Springs is open and looking forward to greeting visitors.”

Langer said that before the mudslides, “We were actually running 30 to 40 percent over our figures, pretty much across the tourism spectrum, of 2019. We were doing really well this year.”

Now Langer says people are cancelling reservations because Google Maps shows I-70 is closed at Rifle. It’s not. The highway is open for tourism east of Rifle and in the Roaring Fork Valley. Drivers just need to tell checkpoint personnel they are heading to Glenwood to visit.

At the same time some businesses, like Blue Sky Adventures, have improvised and overcome many of the challenges caused by the closure.

Established in 1975, Blue Sky Adventures has hosted rafting, bicycling, 4-wheel-drive and other adventures for more than 45 years. Patrick Drake and his wife Isabel are second-generation owners. Patrick is a Glenwood Springs native and grew up in the business started by his father.

Drake said his business has remained strong as a destination attraction, and despite the closure of some of his most important rafting venues. The company has been able to successfully shift rafting to reaches of the Colorado River downstream of the canyon as well as the Roaring Fork River, whose confluence with the Colorado River happens right under the bridge into downtown.

“Glenwood Springs is open for business,” said Drake. “Even if it takes longer to get here all the recreational opportunities are still here and ready for visitors.”

Roaring Fork Valley inundated with shortcut traffic

In Aspen, legions of automobiles coming down from Independence Pass clog up East Cooper Avenue, AKA Highway 82, that runs through Aspen and down the valley to Glenwood Springs, passing through villages and towns including Basalt, El Jebel, and Carbondale.

All that through traffic headed west to I-70 ends up in Glenwood, clogging up its streets but not leaving much money behind in the process, Godes said.

“When the Grand Avenue Bridge was replaced in 2017, I was one of these optimistic people that thought all these commuters from Aspen are going to stop at our restaurants and just sit and wait for traffic to clear a little bit and then continue,” said Godes. “That did not happen. People stayed in their cars with their windows rolled up, their air conditioning on, their music playing and just gritted through it.” Through traffic now doesn't seem to be stopping much either, says Godes.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo is even less pleased with the traffic on Independence Pass. He says the sheer volume of traffic trying to get around Glenwood Canyon, not to mention those who don’t pay attention to the many signs limiting vehicle length to 35 feet or less on the pass, are causing traffic jams, delays of up to 8 hours, and serious safety problems. There are three narrow one-lane sections of the road near Aspen that catch large vehicle drivers unaware.

“The road is just not built for this kind of traffic,” DiSalvo said. “The other day we had a car on fire up on the pass and there was no way we could get a fire truck up there. Fortunately the car burned out without starting a forest fire.”

Getting any kind of emergency equipment up from Aspen to deal with accidents or illness has become a lengthy process. The alternative for emergency response is from Leadville, some 58 miles from Aspen.

Smartphone detour avoidance isn't smart at all

The opposite situation is a problem for Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario. People trying to avoid the long northern detour are using mapping apps like Google Maps to automatically find routes around the canyon closure.

The problem is these apps will create a route that uses roads that are entirely unsuitable for anything but high-clearance and four-wheel-drive vehicles … and sometimes not even them.

Vallario recounted a recent event involving a compact car using an app-generated route on the north rim of Glenwood Canyon, over the Flattops, that resulted in a two-day rescue operation by the Sheriff’s Department. The driver made the mistake of believing the mapped route was both suitable for his tiny, low clearance car and that the route shown was open to the public. Turning off of a Forest Service road the driver went down a steep, rocky 4WD trail and ran into private property and a locked gate and had to be rescued and towed out.

“It was an expensive tow, I imagine,” said Vallario.

A couple from Illinois interviewed by The Denver Gazette who didn’t wish to be named came to Glenwood Springs via Independence Pass. They were trying to find an alternative to returning the same way because the wife was terrified of the long drops off the sides of the Independence Pass road. Her attempt to chart a route over Cottonwood Pass led her to believe it was okay, but the route actually diverged onto an extremely rugged 4WD/ATV-only forest road thanks to Google’s routing software. She was eventually convinced not to attempt it.

Google de-linked the east and west sides of the pass right at the top in its mapping program at the request of local officials. It’s supposed to show the pass is closed. But as of Thursday, it advises drivers to take a long diversion off Cottonwood Pass to bypass the blockage.

The problem is that the alternate route it selects is far more dangerous than the pass itself, shunting drivers onto a rough four-wheel-drive-only road that could leave impatient and imprudent drivers stranded many miles from help with no cellphone reception.

It wouldn't be the first, or the second time that's happened in the last week or so.

Over the weekend a Greyhound bus driver with 20 passengers attempted to drive up Coffee Pot Road, a Forest Service road leading to the Coffee Pot Campground on the Flattops above the canyon’s north rim. The bus struck rocks in the road, ripping open the oil pan and leaking all the oil out onto the road and disabling the bus 22 miles west of the nearest paved road.

At 6 p.m. Friday the sheriff’s office was notified and units responded immediately.

One of the passengers had a heart condition and was quickly transported out by sheriff’s deputies. The rest of the passengers were taken out by deputies and members of the Garfield County Search and Rescue Team to Eagle, arriving at midnight, where Greyhound arranged for the passengers to continue their journey. No injuries were reported.

“This is exactly why people need to follow the CDOT designated and approved detours,” said Sheriff Vallario. “We know it’s an inconvenience and adds time to a trip, but Greyhound put 21 people in jeopardy because of this reckless behavior. Slow down, plan ahead and use only CDOT designated detour routes. Don’t just rely on your mapping apps.”

It’s not all bad news

There are some winners on the CDOT-approved northern detour that takes drivers through Silverthorne, Steamboat Springs, Craig, Meeker and Rifle, a 220-mile, 4-hour detour.

Speaking of the detour, Macaluso said, “My estimate is that it’s not a big deal, but when you multiply it against the fact that there are less available drivers, there will be a ripple effect. It won’t be just the length of time of the detour. What that effect is is hard to gauge, it depends on the commodity and the circumstance, but it’s not trivial.”

Lindsay and Chris Dillenbeck, fifth-generation owners of Steamboat Springs’ iconic F.M. Light & Sons western clothing, boots and hat store, said all the traffic has been great for business, but for the wrong reason.

“It’s too bad that everyone has to be rerouted and take this long detour, but we hope that while they do they get to enjoy some beautiful scenery and maybe stop in our town and get a taste of the Wild West, which is still here.”

Drivers on the detour are clogging up U.S Route 40, which is also Steamboat’s main drag, Lincoln Avenue, thanks to the 25 MPH speed limit and numerous stoplights. Delays can be 30 minutes or more just to get through town.

As a result, unlike Glenwood, many people are taking a break and patronizing downtown businesses rather than sit in a seemingly endless line of semi-trucks, cars and RVs moving at a snail’s pace.

F.M. Light & Sons opened for business Nov. 9, 1905. It’s iconic yellow and black signs along the highways leading into Steamboat can be seen as far as 50 miles out in all four directions. The signs were erected in the 1930s by Dillenbeck’s great-great grandfather, Clarence Light, and the Dillenbecks continue to maintain them.

“It’s our job. My husband and I go out and paint signs and fix them multiple times a year,” said Lindsay. “It’s still a family business and we’re working hard to maintain it.”

By keeping them in repair they maintain their right to have them, something now largely prohibited by the Lady Bird Johnson Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which prohibits most advertising signs and billboards along federally-funded highways like Route 40.

The Dillenbecks have one child, two-year-old Ashley, who goes by “Piper,” to help carry on the business.

“We have a number of sixth-generation Lights all over, and Piper joins that sixth-generation family and we’re so glad to have her,” said Dillenbeck.

Further north, in Craig, the restaurants along Victory Way and Pershing Street, AKA Route 40 and Colorado Highway 13, are also experiencing heavy traffic. But Dr. Chris Senseney, professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, says its streets, along with most of the roadways along the detour route, are not designed for this amount of heavy truck traffic, which will result in premature deterioration of the pavement that will be expensive to repair.

Speeding and improper passing are a big problem on the detour as well. While it’s not known how many traffic tickets have been issued, a worker at the Moffat County Public Safety Center, which houses the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, Craig Police Department, and Colorado State Patrol, said law enforcement has issued “a boatload of warnings.”

Down Colorado 13, according to Emily Mohr of the Meeker Chamber of Commerce, the “not too sleepy” town is even less enamored of the trucks and traffic, which makes it difficult at times to get across Market Street because there are no traffic lights like there are in Steamboat and drivers seem to think they don't have to slow down through town.

Meeker is a recreational destination for off-road vehicle touring, fishing and camping in the summer, hunting in the fall and snowmobile excursions in the winter.

There’s not much drop-in tourism by impatient drivers frustrated by the 220-mile detour they’ve been forced onto, but once off Market Street, historic Main Street still enjoys plenty of bucolic small-town charm, with visitors willing to take a break being able to enjoy the shops and restaurants without the bustling crowds in Steamboat.

The western terminus of the northern detour is Rifle, where workers flag eastbound traffic diverted off I-70 at the West Rifle exit onto the Highway 13 bypass on the west side of town.

Only passenger vehicles and local delivery trucks headed for towns to the east such as Silt, Newcastle, Glenwood Springs and destinations up the Roaring Fork Valley like Carbondale and Aspen are allowed back onto I-70 eastbound.

Nobody knows how long I-70 will be closed this time, or if it will be closed again. But CDOT is working hard to open up two-way traffic on the bottom deck as soon as possible, and Gov. Polis is requesting federal aid that will speed up the process. Until then traffic through the canyon will travel back to the 1970s, to a time when everyone had to slow down to 50 miles per hour and enjoy the scenery for 15 miles on what was once the last remaining segment of two-lane interstate highway in the nation.

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