Cottonwood Pass closure could last into summer 2018

Gunnison County work this summer, Chaffee County the following summer

By Mark Reaman

The Cottonwood Pass Road is getting a major makeover and as a result, it could be closed not just this summer to vehicle traffic but the summer of 2018 as well. Work on the Gunnison County side of the pass will take place this year while Chaffee County is lining up 18 miles of roadwork for the following summer.

Gunnison County Public Works director Marlene Crosby said they have no idea at this time how the heavy snows from this winter will impact the timeline for the upcoming work but it could be a factor. “Depending on the progress in 2017 the project may extend into 2018 as well,” she said.

Even if the Gunnison County improvements are completed this summer, the Chaffee County side of the pass is lining up major improvements for Cottonwood Pass Road for 2018. Details of those improvements, the timing and ramifications are still in the early development phase.

“When we learned that Gunnison County was awarded funds for reconstruction, our idea was that we could come in at the same time and at least improve the road at the top of the pass,” said Chaffee County administrator Bob Christiansen.

But when the county made a submittal for the improvements to the upper part of the road, the Federal Highway Administration identified the Chaffee County project as a possibility for funding and went even further. Last week Chaffee County commissioners approved documents that allow for final planning for 18 miles of work on the road. The $18.6 million project will cover 18.5 miles of road on the east side of the pass. The road will be repaved, widened and guardrails improved. It is expected that the work will take all summer and could be completed by November 2018.

“The original idea was to focus on the top but the thought was that if we were going to do it we should just do it right,” Christiansen explained. “So now we are approved and the commissioners signed off with the Federal Highway Administration. Our local cash match on the $18.6 million project is $3.2 million.”

Christiansen said a thorough plan for the project would be completed by this coming fall and then put out to bid. Construction will take place in 2018.

“There is still a lot of planning and as part of that we will be discussing access. We want people to be able to get in and out up there,” Christiansen said. “Businesses up there have expressed concerns but we still haven’t drilled down far enough into the process for access issues.”

As a reminder of what to expect this summer, the Gunnison County project area extends from Taylor River Road to the summit of Cottonwood Pass for a length of 13.5 miles in Gunnison County. The project will reconstruct the existing gravel road to a paved surface. In addition, the project will provide for consistent lane widths, shoulders, clear zones, and improve horizontal alignment and roadside drainage.

Given the short construction season and scope of the work, Cottonwood Pass will be completely closed to all public traffic, 24 hours a day, on the Gunnison County side. The parking area at the top of the pass will be accessible from the Buena Vista side at all times. Camping along Cottonwood Pass Road will be prohibited. Users of the Timberline Trail will be allowed to cross Cottonwood, but that will be the only public use. There will be coordination with the Taylor Park Cattle Pool as well.

When we can finally drive the Cottonwood Pass Road again it will be smooth and most likely a faster commute. Crosby said we could expect fewer switchbacks, for one. “There will be a couple of realignments up at the top,” she explained. “The S-curves will be a single long curve, and the tight corners near the top will be realigned. The lower portion will basically follow the current alignment, but will be widened to a consistent 22 feet of driving surface.”

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