Little Blue Creek Canyon road construction plan creates controversy

Extension could add up to $10 million and take an additional year for completion

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

A major road construction project between Gunnison and Montrose on Highway 50 will begin next month and there remains some question if the significant road closures associated with the work will last two years or three. At least one state senator is doing whatever he can to prolong the project with longer daily road openings but over a much longer period of time while most other government officials, especially those in Gunnison County, want to get it over as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, work on the Highway 92 detour will start March 15.

More than a few cages were rattled at a Region 10/CDOT Transportation Planning Region (TPR) meeting last week as the seemingly unpopular proposal came up to possibly extend the timeline for the upcoming Little Blue Creek Canyon Project on Highway 50 west of Gunnison. The project improvements include realignment, widening the highway to two 12-foot travel lanes with two 4-foot-wide paved shoulders, guardrail replacement, additional rockfall catchment area, new signage, and striping along a 4-mile portion of the roadway.

The project was originally planned to begin this spring and take two years. Gunnison County officials have weighed in that the Gunnison Valley’s general input is to get the project over with as quickly as possible rather than drag it out and suffer possible continued economic fallout, especially during the prime summer tourism months.

Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt, town manager Dara McDonald and the board of Gunnison County commissioners have all expressed concern for any alternate plans that extends the duration of the project, and Gunnison County public works director Marlene Crosby said CDOT had not reached a decision on this “second option” as of press time.

Commissioners Liz Smith and Roland Mason, who both sit on the Region 10 committee for the county, rehashed the TPR meeting from last week during the regular commissioners meeting on Tuesday, March 2. Smith said the “contentious” discussion raised concerns she believed were “trumped up” and possibly intended to derail the project entirely. Those concerns were that agricultural and animal transport, medical specialist visits, the timber industry and uninformed tourists will be affected by the closures, and longer periods of the roadway being open each day could alleviate those issues.

“The agricultural community here has not raised significant concerns about the timeline,” said Smith. “Everything I’ve heard from the community here has been either neutral to sticking to the plan, or opposed to the additional timeline.”

Smith said the additional year could negatively impact Gunnison County businesses by costing them an additional summer without the finished project.

Commissioner Mason said the $8-10 million in additional costs would also be depleting funds for other high priority CDOT projects in the region.  He said he believes all affected industries are prepared to plan ahead for travel needs.

“The elongated schedule builds in huge inefficiencies,” commented Smith, as far as set up and tear down in the construction zone needed to allow for traffic to pass through.

Commission chairperson Jonathan Houck said the original plan of two years, with incremental openings each day for traffic to pass through has the support of Gunnison, Montrose, Ouray and Delta counties with the exception of one individual—namely, state senator Don Coram. The Arrowhead subdivision, which lies within Gunnison County and which would be affected the most heavily in that area, has been accommodated throughout the planning process, said Houck.

“The Department Heads are almost unanimous in the recommendation to get it over as quickly as possible – go with two years,” wrote McDonald in a response to the proposal. “Of course it is going to be much more problematic for visitors or folks trying to drive through the area who may not be aware of the project, while locals should be able to plan ahead. It is staff’s predominant thought that for both audiences, one less year of substantial delays would be best.”

The project is scheduled to begin in earnest next month and be complete in November 2022 under the current schedule. If CDOT adopts the secondary plan, the project would be completed by October 21, 2023, according to CDOT estimates.

Meanwhile, it was announced by CDOT this week that crews with American Civil Constructors, LLC Mountain West (ACC) will begin improvements on Colorado Highway 92 on March 15. Crews will widen CO 92 from Mile Point 46.5 to MP 73, a winding section of roadway stretching from just south of J 82 Road to the intersection of CO 92 with US Highway 50 at Blue Mesa Reservoir. The work is in preparation for a local detour for the upcoming US 50 Little Blue Creek Canyon improvement project. Work on CO 92 will take place March 15 – 31 and is anticipated to be complete in early April.

The complete project overview can be found at https://www.us50info.com/

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