Infrastructure crash: Routing I-70 through Glenwood Canyon destroyed the canyon, cost billions and kills people

Glenwood Canyon in Western Colorado was the last obstacle in I-70 across America. They just needed one last 14 mile stretch along the Colorado River to connect with Glenwood Springs. From there the highway was already in place down-river and onto the deserts of Utah.

They blew it.

They chose to follow the old wagon road alongside the Colorado River through the magnificent canyon lined with steep 2,000-foot cliffs of sandstone, shale, limestone and granite. The river snakes between the cliffs, varying unpredictably between a trickle and a torrent depending on recent thunderstorms and last winter’s snowpack a hundred miles away.

It took 12 years and half a billion 1980’s dollars to build the 14 miles of highway. The Colorado Department of Transportation boasts on its website (try to ignore their typos) that the construction employed as many as 500 workers at a time, entails 40 viaducts and bridges and uses 30 million pounds of steel and 1.6 billion pounds of concrete. They crow that they even imported things from France.

Wow, France!

Much of the 4-lane is elevated over impassible terrain and occasionally cantilevered out over the river. Naturally, they included a bicycle path for long-haul truckers to take a break with their bikes.

The Transportation Department brags that this is an “engineering marvel.” As an undergraduate Civil Engineering major, I don’t disagree. The engineering that went into the highway was state-of-the art notwithstanding the Francophilia. They go on to inform us that the highway is “much more than a transportation facility.”

I agree with that too. This is no mere highway. It’s a costly, unwise, unsafe boondoggle.

Much of the roadway is atop near-continuous bridges shaded by the steep cliffs that freeze up long before ground-based roadway freezes. The problem is compounded by the moisture of the river which is always alongside or even right under the road. As drivers fight to hang onto the slippery road, the freezing highway twists and winds.

The most unsafe thing is that stuff is always falling onto the road from those cliffs. Stuff perched on cliffs does that. A bowling ball-size rock freefalling a few hundred feet has the kinetic energy of a cannonball. It knocks a car off the road, or goes right through it at dismembering, bisecting, decapitating velocities. Boulders are even worse.

Mud slides are more frequent than boulders. They often close the road for hours or days while heavy equipment cleans up debris that can be a dozen feet thick.

That’s the current situation. Mudslides caused by recent heavy rains have blocked hundreds of yards of roadway at multiple points. The highway has been closed yet again, for two weeks and counting, and they say it’ll stay that way “indefinitely.” Fortunately, no one was killed this time, but traffic is being re-routed far to the north for a 4-hour delay.

Weather extremes are not exactly unusual in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. This has happened before and it will happen again. More people will be killed. Running a 4-lane interstate highway through a rugged and spectacular mountain canyon was a bad choice. Mother Nature has a way of exacting her revenge.

Especially when they had another choice. Instead of tackling the canyon, they could have gone up and over. South of the canyon is Cottonwood Pass, a relatively low elevation pass connecting I-70 with Highway 82 a few miles from Glenwood Springs. (This is not to be confused with a different and much higher pass also called Cottonwood, near Buena Vista.) The terrain is not exactly like western Kansas, but it’s far more moderate than Glenwood Canyon.

They did something similar to the east as I-70 enters the mountains from Denver. The old wagon road went up Clear Creek Canyon. They wisely decided not to engineer an expensive and unsafe 4-lane (which is now a 6-lane) highway up the same route, but to instead go up and over the nearby hills.

Given that Glenwood Canyon is far more rugged than Clear Creek Canyon, it’s puzzling that they didn’t make the same up-and-over choice there. I suspect they wanted an engineering challenge. Maybe there was some public works cronyism or corruption.

They did get their engineering challenge. The rest of us got a big bill, a destroyed canyon, unreliable travel and life-threatening drives.

Perhaps there’s a lesson for today’s infrastructure legislation. Sometimes the most expensive alternative is also the most destructive and unsafe one. Sometimes common sense is better than marvelous engineering.

25 thoughts on “Infrastructure crash: Routing I-70 through Glenwood Canyon destroyed the canyon, cost billions and kills people

  1. But what do we do now? When the closed independence pass due to nonexistent mudslides …I am reminded of the boy who cried wolf! Heads should roll.

  2. Reminds me of a report of the former USSR, wherein whenever a top general or politico went to Siberia to visit a military base or city, the local commissar would spend millions to import and plant trees from the south of the country, a few days in advance along the boulevards they knew the motorcade would travel , even if it was the middle of winter.
    Optics are critical to bureaucrats.

    • Probably. Those tunnels into, out of, and under Manhattan — built over a century ago (with private capital in many cases) — have held up pretty well. The main problem now is that the subway trains hurtling through them are filled with vagrants, perverts and psychopaths with machetes. Our social engineering has a far worse record than our civil engineering.

  3. I always love the beautiful drive through but totally agree with Glenn. BTW there is only 100 billion for roads and bridges in the “infrastructure” bill out of trillion so I don’t think there will be a permanent solution to I70 issue.

  4. Definition of “Infrastructure” as found in the Newspeak Dictionary: Anything a republicrat politician wants in order to screw the taxpayers and funnel pork into his/her/its district/state/Commonwealth, as long as there’s plenty of funding to grease every palm along the way–especially MINE!

    • Nice try to deflect blame from the corrupt Democrat machine. After the “bipartisan” trillion dollar bill is passed the Dems are threatening to add another 5 trillion through reconciliation. None of which would meet the traditional definitions of infrastructure. Try to keep up, although I know it’s tough with your head buried in your rectum…

      • You must be new here. Most of Glenn’s commenters are civilized, even if they don’t agree. While you were busy sharpening your rapier like wit, perhaps you missed the seventeen republicans who voted to open debate on the bill back in July, or the eighteen who voted to advance the legislation yesterday. Do try to keep up.

  5. I don’t know why the exceptionally bad decision was made to route I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. But when the author says, “Maybe there was some public works cronyism or corruption,” that sounds plausible.

    Consider I-69, a fabulously expensive rat’s-nest of highway connecting Evansville and Indianapolis. It was completely unnecessary and met considerable grass-roots opposition, but it was rammed though solely for the secondary effect of gaining kickbacks, graft, and campaign contributions. That’s how our rulers farm public construction or infrastructure budget.

  6. I fell in love with Glenwood Springs -and Canyon- years-ago on my first visit to the area.
    Oddly enough, I also noted the funky, almost-misplaced and dangerous aspect of that section of I-70.
    By-the-way: I have not been back to Glenwood in a couple of years. Have the rich and not-famous ruined the ‘Spings too? Hopefully, stopped at Carbondale.

  7. Words inscribed over the entryway to the Colorado Department of Transportation:
    “Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!”

      • 😁 Every time I see Biden on TV I think of Shelley’s opening line in “England in 1819” — “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King . . . .” But even George III wouldn’t have opened his colonies’ borders to the French, or put a General Milley in charge of his armed forces.

  8. Glenn,
    Sometimes projects are works of art and engineering, not just practicality. How many billions were spent to go to the moon and to send a mission to mars? There are dozens of bridges in cities across the USA that are more works of art than practical expense would dictate. How much do we spend to subsidize public radio and art galleries? Why the statue of liberty, the Smithsonian, Mount Rushmore, why National Parks and National monuments? Why the landscaping along interstate highways through major American cities? As to deaths, I’m guessing that there are many stretches of interstate highway that have a much higher death toll than Glenwood Canyon? The interstate through Glenwood Canyon has been a source of enjoyment for millions having had the pleasure.

    • And then there’s Penn Station, Robert, perhaps the grandest civic monument to Western Civilization ever erected, and which was demolished just 53 years after its completion — a testament to the principle that form should follow function, especially when it’s too freaking expensive.

      And then there’s the old saying, “Man proposes, God disposes.” The natural forces at work in Glenwood Canyon aren’t done yet. Personally, every time I drive through there, I’m worrying about a rock up above that has my name on it.

    • Robert, the Glenwood Canyon highway was never intended to be a work of art. Personally, I don’t think the highway improves upon the art that God put there millions of years ago. As for making God’s art available for human viewing, we have legs for that and don’t need a 4-lane highway.

      That’s not to say that there’s never anything artistic about engineering works. Sometimes there is, such as the Golden Gate Bridge or, going a little further back, the Pyramids at Giza. But those structures are artistic partly because they perform their function so well — the Pyramids have stood for 3,000 years and the Bridge has successful carried millions of people across the bay.

      In contrast, the Glenwood Canyon is a bust. It’s often closed, it frequently kills people, it cost an exorbitant amount of money, and it destroyed the natural beauty of the setting. Cottonwood Canyon would have been a far better place for the highway.

      • Glenn,
        As one who traveled through the Canyon in the 40s and 50s, you could not enjoy the beauty because the road was so narrow and oncoming two way traffic was always upon you. I-70 in my opinion enhanced our safety and our ability to enjoy the beauty.

  9. When I was a youngster, I remember hearing the grownups talk about the construction of I70. As I recollect, there were 3 routes. The one across the southern part of the state was abandoned rather quickly. The second route was to follow highway 6 end to end through the entire state of Colorado. The third route was to follow highway 6 from Denver to Silverthorne and then use highway 9 to Kremmling and then use highway 40 to Utah. That way the construction would miss the difficult parts of Vail pass and Glenwood Canyon. The “Vail founders”, Gramshammer, Slifer, Gorsuch, and the Vail ski resort founders, lobbied Washington DC to choose the highway 6 route end to end through Colorado so that more people could come to Vail easier and so as a result these people would make more money. They lobbied Gerald Ford specifically. The Eisenhauer tunnel was not completed at that time, but was a definite plan. The Johnson tunnel was not complete until 1980.

  10. Sierra Club was also in on the mess.. Could have used the north rim above the Glenwood Canyon, like in Arizona on their north rim near their Grand Canyon.

  11. Pingback: Infrastructure crash: Routing I-70 through Glenwood Canyon destroyed the canyon, cost billions and kills people — the Aspen beat – The Bridgehunter's Chronicles

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