County convenes with CDOT on long-term transportation needs

Bike lanes, Highway 50 and Little Blue Canyon improvements

By Katherine Nettles

Roadways and transportation within and around Gunnison County were a topic of conversation recently as the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) hosted state and regional officials from CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation) and representatives from the city of Gunnison, Crested Butte, Mt. Crested Butte and local transit heads on April 23.

The group discussed priorities and a wish list for the next 10 years, including Highway 50 improvements, bike lanes throughout the valley, Little Blue Canyon work and the connectivity network of highways in adjacent counties.

Rebecca White, director of the Division of Transportation Development at CDOT, explained that the organization is kicking off a process to look at long-term transportation needs statewide. White said that while CDOT typically employs a 25-year window, the new executive director Shoshana Lew has given a directive to include the shorter time window as well.

“What we really want to come out of this process—and we hope to meet with every single county—is a picture of the transportation needs for the next 10 years,” said White. While the next four years are fiscally constrained by the money already accounted for, she said, “The next six years allows us to dream a little bit, still within reason … to achieve safety, mobility and economic vitality across the state.” The funding is to be determined later, but “At least if we have a list … we have our priorities set.”

This was the first county meeting in CDOT’s 64-county task. CDOT gave an overview of the county’s corridors, road conditions, recreational areas and population predictions before opening the meeting to input from local representatives. The group focused on safety, economic vitality and multimodal transit (meaning all forms of transportation) goals. Tim Kirby of CDOT’s Multimodal Planning Branch said CDOT will bring together what comes from each separate county meeting to form a more comprehensive 10-year plan.

According to data collected by CDOT, the population of Gunnison County is expected to increase by 20 percent between 2020 and 2045. The fastest-growing segments are among people 65 years old and up (expected to increase by 49 percent), and among 50-year-olds to 64-year-olds (expected to increase by 39 percent). CDOT predicted the two age cohorts would need increased access to reliable transit services and multimodal systems, particularly to access specialized health care found in Montrose and Grand Junction.

The group discussed the lack of public transportation heading west from Gunnison County.

Regarding safety, CDOT shared a map identifying locations throughout the county with smaller shoulder widths (two feet or less) and elevated crash patterns. “Among the questions we are asking is, what are the biggest challenges you are going to face?” asked Kirby.

County commissioner Jonathan Houck said the future of Highway 50 is a major concern. “What is happening outside our county has a noticeable influence,” he said, and suggested that Highway 50 might become more of a relief valve from Interstate 70.

“To the east and notably to the west are wildlife issues. A big concern for us is how do we start mitigating wildlife issues?” Houck added. “Highway 50 seems to be this more interesting piece … I have been hearing it being compared with [Interstate] 25 … so we want to know, what does the future of Highway 50 look like?”

While that answer did not come readily to anyone in the room, the group did discuss connectivity to the county, redundancy in the transportation system, and where various alternative routes are affected when one corridor is temporarily closed, such as I-70 at Glenwood Canyon. The safety concerns on Highway 285 due to wind, snow removal, lack of passing lanes and volume also ranked high, despite it being in another county.

“When we go to Denver … we don’t worry about Monarch. What we worry about is 285,” said Houck.

County commissioner John Messner talked about Highway 114 accidents as well, when freight trucks are using it as a bypass to Highway 50. “And they often have environmental impacts,” he said, explaining that most accidents encounter the adjacent creek and either pollute or impede it.

CDOT representatives agreed that they have identified passing lanes on 285, as well as freight issues related to increased semitrailer use and risks, as a priority for future improvement.

Houck said another of the county’s priorities will be getting safe crosswalks across Highway 50 within the city of Gunnison, since many parents report they are within walking distance to school but are not comfortable with their children crossing the highway.

The work session also addressed access to recreation and job density areas. Several local officials, such as Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt, spoke to the importance of connectivity and accessibility for the county using public transportation. Schmidt spoke of an increased drive market from the Front Range due to Epic ski pass holders and Western Colorado University’s high number of in-state students. “Can we get more buses to the Front Range?” he asked.

In the north valley, Houck and county commissioner Roland Mason emphasized congestion issues between Gunnison, Crested Butte, Crested Butte South/Cement Creek Road, Brush Creek Road and Mt. Crested Butte. He cited increasing density in the Riverland Industrial Park and heavy truck use to serve vacation home construction projects.

Houck responded to CDOT’s data collection of bicycle traffic using Strava, a social fitness network. Houck indicated Strava was likely underestimating the bike traffic within the county, given uses that did not involve the main corridors such as 135. He spoke of residents’ and visitors’ desire to have bike lanes, or some additional recreational infrastructure separate from roadways to commute between the communities along 135. “We want to know how to connect Crested Butte South to Crested Butte with a separate bike path. Crested Butte South is the second largest population base in Gunnison County,” he said.

Another topic discussed was the bike trail systems going north out of Gunnison, but not west. “It would be an incredible opportunity to connect to Blue Mesa recreation area,” said Schmidt.

Last, CDOT gave a project overview for its upcoming 2020 safety improvements within Little Blue Canyon on Highway 50 between Gunnison and Montrose. The project will widen shoulders, improve the guardrail, and create better sight distances along a three-mile section, requiring extensive rock blasting along the canyon walls. The project is scheduled to begin around April 2020 and will have overnight closures as well as scheduled closures twice daily.

CDOT representatives said that once they hire a contractor, more of the specific details will be forthcoming, but the project will maintain access for all residents throughout construction—although not during all hours of the day.

The effects of the Little Blue Canyon project were discussed extensively, as it relates to timing, duration, congestion, and alternate routes.

CDOT said they will take all the input from Gunnison County to the Transportation Planning Region (TPR), which includes the Gunnison Valley TPR, and scope out a regional plan to set a 25-year vision for the area. The Gunnison Valley TPR includes Delta, Montrose, San Miguel, Ouray, Hinsdale, and Gunnison. There will be a joint county meeting planned in the future as well, said Kirby.

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