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With I-70 closed, a new push for an alternate route through Glenwood Canyon

As drivers are forced into hours-long detours, there's new interest in whether a long-ago abandoned option could be put into service.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo — The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) hasn’t been able to estimate when it may be able to open I-70 to traffic through Glenwood Canyon after mudslides did significant damage to the highway last week. Local leaders in the Roaring Fork Valley are questioning whether local governments should invest in a better alternate route.

Currently, CDOT advises drivers to avoid Cottonwood Pass south of Gypsum as an alternate route, as the road is narrow and unpaved with steep grades. The two counties that manage the road are in talks to improve it to make it a better detour for local traffic.

A lot of local traffic is currently using Cottonwood Pass to navigate around the I-70 closure.

“Where it is now it’s not currently safe for the traffic volumes that are currently on it or would like to be on it,” said Jeff Shroll, the county manager for Eagle County, which maintains the steeper parts of the road.

“I’ve got four guys on-duty all the time just to help the traffic flows on the tight narrow sections. To get rid of that, we’re probably in the neighborhood of $10-$15 million, and we couldn’t do that right now.”

Shroll says to fully pave the road and make it an alternative to I-70, he estimates it could cost as much as $70 million.

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Local leaders say something has to be done to mitigate the impacts of closing I-70, which has become a more frequent problem since the Grizzly Creek Fire burned in the canyon last summer.

“There has to be a long-term permanent solution and that might include rock sheds and other major improvements to that highway,” said Tony Hershey, a Glenwood Springs city council member. “Short-term, we really have to talk about Cottonwood Pass and paving it all the way.”

“There can’t just be one way between Eagle County and Garfield County between the Front Range and the Western Slope.”

Hershey said the losses in tax revenue Glenwood Springs experiences whenever the highway shuts down would likely pay the extensive bill to modify Cottonwood Pass to make it an alternate.

“This isn’t like this little street that we’re standing in front of … this is an interstate highway that connects not just the Western Slope with Denver…but connects multiple states,” he said.

Beyond the pass, people on the train had to deal with an Amtrak cancellation Tuesday because of the conditions. The California Zephyr line that runs through this part of Colorado is experiencing an "ongoing weather-related track closure" between Denver and Grand Junction, Amtrak said.

CDOT has also had to alter the route of the Bustand, the statewide bus service. The department said they were allowing some service to return to Glenwood Springs, with detours: "The current detour route for Bustang between Rifle and Wolcott is CO. 13, U.S. 40, and CO. 131. Prior to the closure of Glenwood Canyon, it took approximately 5 hours, 40 minutes to travel between Grand Junction and Denver. Currently, it is about 9 hours, 45 minutes."

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