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.
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.