The closure of Colorado’s main east-west road this summer sent drivers on detours for hours — increasing traffic and a welcome boost for some towns and businesses on alternate routes.
In Craig, there was a bump in restaurants and grocery stores. In Rifle, the closure of Interstate 70 has caused people to wander around town or book motel rooms for overnight stays.
“I’ve spoken to quite a few people in our restaurants (who) have been traveling through,” said Diana Lawrence, the real estate agent who chairs the Board of Directors of the Colorado River Valley Chamber. “I haven’t heard any complaints coming from any of the companies.”
However, other areas on the bypass road have seen significantly increased traffic, repeated requests for directions or drivers speeding along city roads, in an effort to make up for lost time.
“For the most part, people were passing through here,” said Trudy Bury, of the Maker Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center.
The stretch of I-70 that runs through Glenwood Canyon is particularly prone to mudslides after the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire behind a burn scar, an area where water seeps from the soil — like raindrops from a car hood — more than to be absorbed.
Between late June and late August, I-70 closed through Glenwood Canyon nine times as state officials prepared for flash floods or cleared the way after car and truck accidents. This stretch of highway closed 17 times in the summer of 2021, including about ten times before the July mudslide that stranded more than 100 motorists overnight and closed part of the highway for several weeks. In the summer of 2020, I-70 closed once for two weeks due to the Grizzly Creek fire.
The turn recommended by the Colorado Department of Transportation during lockdown extends west from Glenwood Springs to New Castle and Rifle, up Meeker, Craig, and Steamboat Springs down to Kremmling or Silverthorne. Drivers can also head south from Glenwood Springs to Basalt and Aspen and then drive north through Leadville.
During the two weeks, the highway was closed due to the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire, and an additional 12,500 vehicles used the northern and southern bypass roads, said Elise Thatcher, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Now, a lot of traffic is flowing north because there is construction on US 50 on the other road.
In Meeker, officials saw more drivers speeding through a Colorado town of 13. The state patrol and the local sheriff’s office helped enforce speed limits. Berry would like more road signs urging drivers to slow down or drivers to stop and see what Maker has to offer.
“Other than just stopping maybe to get gas and some coffee, that doesn’t have much of an impact other than the traffic being brought into town,” she said of the I-70 shutdowns.
In Kremmling, the I-70 shutdown brings long lines of drivers waiting to use the restroom at the locally owned grocery store. There is also more traffic on large sections of Colorado 9 and US 40 where there is no shoulder and no lane traffic. Mayor Grover Pryor is particularly concerned about the safety of drivers and cyclists on those roads.
Cornering increases uncertainty and costs for truckers and drivers, who have to take mandatory 10-hour breaks after about 11 hours of driving, said Greg Fulton, of the Colorado Automobile Association.
“When the roll starts in place, it goes from a day trip to a two day trip,” Fulton said, using the example of a driver moving freight from Denver to Grand Junction. When there’s a driver sitting on the west slope because hours are running out, it’s not easy for another truck to take its way, because of the constant shortage of drivers, Fulton said.
He said the closures also highlighted the need for an alternative to I-70, an important transportation artery, especially with population growth and the potential for future natural disasters like those in Glenwood Canyon.
While the Department of Transportation is doing a good job and focusing on safety, “The reality is that I-70 is the lifeblood of the region and the nation,” Fulton said. “When Glenwood goes down, we need some sort of reasonable or realistic method available to us.”
Elsewhere on the bypass road, the I-70 shutdown boosted local business.
Lawrence, a real estate agent for Rifle, said the closures are forcing people who don’t normally stop in nearby Rifle or Parachute to learn about the towns, which are trying to expand the tourism industry as oil and gas activity declines. The Transportation Department is halting interstate traffic in Rifle and Dotsero, a few miles from Glenwood Canyon on either side, to prevent that city’s intersections from jamming.
Kristin Skoronsky, a visitor center receptionist at Craig’s Room, said the interstate shutdown in Craig gave the recently renovated downtown a “bigger audience.” One downside, she said, is that the area’s roads are not built to handle commercial traffic and congestion has increased for redirected drivers.
And at Steamboat Springs, Scott Engelman, owner of Carl’s Tavern and the Truffle Pig, said the I-70 closure brings a slight increase in business, despite ongoing construction surrounding both of its facilities and an overall summer that saw slower-than-normal sales.
“I’ve also talked to a lot of my industry friends in Aspen, Vail, and Telluride, and they all experienced a little bit more smoothness this year, compared to last year,” Engelman said.
The reopening of international destinations for travel, the strength of the US dollar in foreign countries, high inflation and gas prices are all factors that could contribute to lower business activity, Engelman said.
He said the recent crackdown on short-term rentals in Steamboat Springs — including a ballot to increase listing taxes to offset a housing market that is hard to reach for many workers — may have discouraged some travelers as well.
The interstate shutdown in 2022 has generally brought fewer visitors to towns, local officials said, reducing traffic jams in cities like Steamboat Springs and Silverthorne.
Transportation department maintenance crews are stationed at closing points when there is a flash flood hour, allowing them to quickly close the highway if the weather gets worse. During the warning of a sudden flood, part of the highway is closed, state patrol sweeps the area and motorists be warned Extended closure.
Those measures were in place last summer, Thatcher, a CDOT spokeswoman, said, but maintenance crews in the Department of Transportation now have more experience responding to potential shutdowns, down to figuring out the best location for portable electronic road signs. This year, the department also defined pre-defined standby shifts to avoid staff shortening in emergencies. Staff from other divisional teams, such as engineering, were also on standby in the latter part of the summer.
“We had a really good plan last season that worked so well that we can repeat it this season. But it probably looks like we’ve been called a bit more this season and that’s because we had to do it over and over again. So we’re a lot smoother in that,” Thatcher said. “But it’s still pretty much the same plan.”
Spokesman Matthew Enzio said CDOT has spent $32 million responding to the 2021 mudslide, and on ongoing rebuilding and rehabilitation work. Transportation Department It recently received nearly $10 million from the Federal Highway Administration, which will be used to offset some of the work done at Glenwood Canyon. Enzio said the department hopes to receive more funding.
Officials in Glenwood Springs worked closely with local law enforcement and the state’s Department of Transportation to plan the shutdown after the 2020 fire. Commercial river rafters in Glenwood Canyon have also coordinated with state and local officials since the Grizzly Creek fire to allow them to operate in the valley under certain conditions, Including transportation department compensation. There have been no major weather disasters affecting the canyon this year, said Gregory Cowan, co-owner of Defiance Rafting in Glenwood Canyon, making summer the first full rafting season since 2019.
“There was minimal disruption, certainly in the travel corridor, and that — for us in Glenwood — that’s huge,” said Cowan, whose business accommodates 11,000 to 13,000 people downriver between late April and September. “I-70 is our lifeline. It is very important.”
City spokeswoman Brianna Starbuck said there were no official studies on the economic impact of closing I-70 on Glenwood Springs. The city’s sales tax revenue has declined during extended lockdowns, while still growing year on year. It said sales tax revenue rose 18.9% in September 2021 compared to 2019. It increased 6.18% in August 2021 – when part of the highway was closed – during 2019.
However, the closures are adding a sense of uncertainty to residents and workers, who fear roadblocks will prolong their trips to work or return home. Lawrence said workers around Rifle, including those who work for construction companies, sometimes returned from work shifts after midnight due to road closures.
Leadville City Manager Laurie Simonson suffered the stress of an unexpected turn last summer when she was driving from Utah to Denver.
When she entered Glenwood Canyon from the west, she saw storm clouds on the horizon and a man ahead of her on the highway putting on white cones.
“I’m like, are you kidding me? I missed crossing the valley, I don’t know, a minute.” She ended up arriving in Denver at 1 AM, after stopping to get gas at Aspen and groceries in Leadville.
Simonson said it’s hard to isolate the amount of increased economic activity in Leadville that stems from drivers at a bend of I-70. City sales tax revenue increased to $277,788 in May 2022 from $199,485 in May 2021 and $139,192 in May 2020, which Leadville Mayor Greg Labee attributes in part to inflation and Leadville’s emergence as a destination among road dwellers during the pandemic, and a decision The court allows states to collect sales taxes from online purchases.
“I don’t go to a hamburger restaurant and find out, ‘Do you buy a hamburger for a walk on the Colorado Trail?'” “Or are you here because you had to take a turn?” said Siminson.
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