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After 2013 flooding, CDOT built a plan to repair roads to weather future disasters

When a road connecting traffic between Greeley and Kersey was washed away, CDOT asked for federal funding to build a bridge over dry land to withstand future floods.

GREELEY, Colo. — When a road on top of an embankment washed out between Greeley and Kersey, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) rebuilt the road, over dry land, with a bridge.

It was one of the 200 road projects from the September 2013 floods that required forward-thinking and $750 million.

“This was what we consider a resiliency project,” Heather Paddock, CDOT Region 4 transportation director, said. “This will last us 75-to-100 years.”

Region 4 covers a large part of Colorado, including the Boulder and Larimer counties, northeastern Colorado and the eastern plains.

When U.S. 34 washed out just west of County Road 49, it caused a 50-plus mile detour for kids from Kersey who went to school in Greeley.

“This corridor being the primary east-west corridor from Estes Park way out east to basically Kansas, for the freight carriers and all of the volume, this is a critical route,” Paddock said.

Instead of building back the same design, CDOT asked the federal government for more money.

“Highly probable that it would have blown out again, Paddock said.

That is why CDOT engineered a bridge over dry land. “And while it was under construction, in 2015, we had another similar event,” Paddock said. “There was water up to the bottom of the girders, so it really served its purpose.”

While U.S. 34 received early attention immediately after the flood, Highway 7 between Lyons and Allenspark and Estes Park was last on the list, getting final repairs completed just last year. 

“Highway 7 was the last project because the emergency repairs were done well, in fact, our emergency repairs were done well across the board,” Paddock said. “It had the lowest volume of vehicles, and it had alternate routes to get to Allenspark or Estes Park, where people needed to go. Now, were they easy routes? No.

CDOT also needed to prioritize based on federal funding. Since the counties were part of a federal disaster declaration, the road repairs were eligible for an 80-20 match. Most of the money came from the federal government, with 20% required by CDOT.

Because we had a fixed amount from the federal government to recover, we wanted to make sure that we could deliver all of the other projects and what we have left over, we were going to make that investment in State Highway 7,” Paddock said. “We did everything on State Highway 7 that we intended to do, and we ended up returning a few dollars back to the federal government.”

“We can't keep throwing money at disasters, right? The federal government eventually is going to say, ‘Hey, whoa, why didn't you take care of that road when you went in and repaired it before?’” Johnny Olson, former CDOT Region 4 transportation director, said.

Olson oversaw the region, covering roads in 13 counties, in 2013, when the flooding happened.

“I'd say about 75-to-80% of the damages were in Region 4,” Olson said.

With so much damage, imagine Olson’s surprise when then-Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) told him via live TV what his assignment was going to be.

“The next morning, I wake up and he's on Channel 9NEWS saying, ‘We're going to have this open in 60 days, before Thanksgiving,’ And my jaw hit the floor,” Olson said. “So, I call him that morning and I'm like, ‘What does ‘open’ mean?’”

For Olson, “open” meant one, non-paved lane to get access for first responders and to allow residents to access food and groceries. Then, “open” would mean two gravel lanes. Finally, “open” would mean paved lanes.

After his jaw hit the floor about Hickenlooper’s 60-day deadline, what was the first thing Olson said?

“Oh, s***! And then, it was like, ‘Yes, sir,’” Olson said. “We were fully open before Thanksgiving.”

Early in the response, Olson asked for help from Hickenlooper to keep his road closure crews safe.

“The governor asked me if we needed the National Guard, and I said it would be good because a lot of my folks are getting guns pulled on them at the road closures because people want to get in,” Olson said. “People would hit those road closures and say, ‘We want in,’ and they're like, ‘Well, we can't let you in,’ Well, we can't really stop them because we're a DOT, we're not an officer. And a couple of times, people were like, ‘I'm going in whether you let me or not’ and have guns out, right. They didn't point them at them, but it's still scary, nevertheless.”

After the initial response, National guardsman took over road closures.

Of the $750 million, CDOT was responsible for less than the normal 20%. The federal government covered five of the projects at 100% because those road projects involved access to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Olson, who now works for Benesch, a structural and civil engineering firm, spent the 10th anniversary of his near-impossible task at a conference in Delaware.

“On Thursday, I give a presentation about resiliency and recovery,” Olson said. “This group is about emergency response and resiliency and how do you prepare for the next one.”

The recovery could not have been complete without the hundreds of millions of dollars, but Olson said it is really the people that got it done.

“I've been part of transportation for 32 years, and I've been part of good teams, but that was the most amazing thing, to watch people work together,” Olson said.

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