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Emails show CDOT didn't want people on Independence Pass because of traffic, not mudslide

There was not a mudslide on the Independence Pass that day. Rather, emails show state employees wanted it to appear closed because of heavy traffic that week.

DENVER — While the Colorado Dept. of Transportation (CDOT) erroneously told the public last week that Independence Pass was closed due to a mudslide, internal emails show CDOT wanted it closed because of traffic.

Map apps like Google, TomTom and Apple showed Independence’s closure, as did CDOT’s own traffic alert web page, CoTrip.org. Referencing information they said was gathered from CoTrip, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office tweeted in the afternoon of Aug. 4 that Independence Pass, also known as Highway 82, was closed due to a mudslide from mile marker 44 to 72.

But there was not a mudslide on Independence Pass that day. Rather, emails show state employees wanted it to appear closed because of heavy traffic that week.

“Hey we are needing to get these navigating apps … to show Independence Pass closed for all of August at least. We currently are having a tremendous amount of traffic up there and is a safety concern and many complaints coming [in],” an Aug. 3 email from maintenance superintendent John David said. “Independence is showing open and is creating havoc.”

Many drivers hoped to use Independence Pass as an alternative to the I-70 closure at Glenwood Canyon, the result of several actual mudslides in the weeks prior. CDOT frequently urges caution on the pass because of its terrain, and the department prohibits oversized vehicles from using it, but the pass can be driven.

"Though it is a paved road, it can be narrow and winding and therefore difficult to traverse in poor weather. It also has steep dropoffs in places along the route. Several areas of the roadway can only accommodate a single car width, so drivers must use caution and pay close attention when confronted with oncoming traffic," CDOT's website says of the pass.

Emails indicate, however, that the state's specific concern at this time was about the amount of traffic diverted to Independence Pass. This email came from David:

We really need these to show both of these passes closed on all navigation apps. They are getting bombarded with heavy I-70 traffic unfortunately because our closures on I-70 allows local traffic to get around those communities, and what is happening, people using these apps see that there is a shorter detour route than the designated highway 13 to Craig and around detour route, which is also showing on COTrip. But people are disregarding that because of the navigation apps. Cottonwood is a dirt road and only one lane in areas and causing multiple issues for the County, and Independence is seeing bumper-to-bumper traffic and guessing 7000 to 9000 cars a day instead of the normal 1000 cars a day creating a very dangerous situation and huge backups at the one-lane areas called the Narrows. We desperately need to get these navigation apps to show these two passes closed so that traveling I-70 traffic quits using them. Anything you can do to get this fixed would be much appreciated.

Independence Pass did not appear as open again, according to the emails, until a mandate came from CDOT Director Shoshanna Lew, though some CDOT employees worried that asking these apps to "reopen" the road so soon would hurt the department's credibility.

"We are currently listed as a 'trusted partner' with these services and while they questioned [the reason for the closure], I explained to them that CDOT is concerned about the traffic levels on the road and they need to be closed. They did it but questioned why Cotrip showed Independence Pass as open," an email from Gregg Miller, a business process architect with CDOT, said.

"I am very concerned about notifying Google, Waze, Apple about reopening the road now. I don't know how they will react to keeping us as a trusted partner, or if they will allow us to automate these data feeds in the future."

In one email, David wrote that he would assume responsibility for the closure and "all locals understand what's going on."

"I guess I had the best of intentions, but bad judgment," he said.

Other emails indicate CDOT tried to have Independence closed more than once this season, even if weather conditions did not officially warrant that.

"This spring it's been harder to get CO 82 marked as closed unless it's truly closed, so more recently I resorted to saying the road itself was closed due to flash flood danger... which is technically kind of true. It worked for a while last week, but you guys may have a better method using the platform available to you," another email, from communications specialist Elise Thatcher, said on Aug. 3.

Ultimately, the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office shared an updated tweet on Aug. 4 when they had more information about the closure.

CoTrip's language was updated, as well. It now reads: "CO 82 Independence Pass should not be considered an alternate route, NO CMV or Vehicles over 35' allowed. Delivery vehicles, RVs and trailers should not use Independence Pass to bypass the Interstate closure. Route is a narrow, high mountain roadway with tight switchbacks and heavy tourist traffic."

It's still unclear who directed "mudslide" to be used as a reason for the closure and how that was decided.

RELATED: CDOT wants you to use state site, not your phone, to get directions around I-70 closure

RELATED: CDOT discouraging I-70 detour traffic over Independence Pass

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

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