No timeline for Highway 50 bridge reopening

Kebler, Lake City Cutoff, boats all coming into play

By Mark Reaman

Almost a week after suddenly closing the so-called Middle Bridge on Highway 50 near the Dillon Pinnacles there is no anticipated timeline for when the bridge might reopen to traffic. While not making any official projections, local and state officials are starting to prepare for a possible closure that lasts into the busy summer tourism season.

Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) crews are actively inspecting the bridge to evaluate the extent of the structural flaws that resulted in the closure, and they said more cracks have been discovered in the last couple of days. Meanwhile, CDOT and Gunnison County crews are working to open alternative routes between Gunnison County and Montrose with snow removal work started on Wednesday to get Kebler Pass open as soon as possible.

While the Highway 50 drive between Gunnison and Montrose normally takes about an hour, the bridge closure has resulted in monstrous detours that take more than six additional hours. Road crews were able to open County Road 26, the Lake City Cutoff Road, on Monday to limited twice-a-day openings for cars and light trucks. That detour added only about an extra hour of drive time but given it is a dirt road not built for constant traffic, the openings have been limited to early mornings, currently between 6:30 a.m. and 8 a.m., and the early evenings, currently between 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Cars must follow a pilot car when using the detour. No semis, heavy trucks (more than a 1601 Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) or trailers are permitted to use the cutoff. Initial traffic volumes have been light with fewer than 100 vehicles utilizing the detour on any one-way opening. The most traffic recorded was 72 vehicles heading east on the detour Tuesday morning.

Officials would like to consider a mid-day detour opening but according to Gunnison County manager Matthew Birnie, “we need to coordinate with CDOT and the contractor to ensure that we can do that safely and not delay work on the road inordinately.” 

Initial response to the idea from the contractor was that three detours a day on CR 26 would “significantly delay progress in getting the road to a condition where we could have much more flexibility and frequency of travel, so for the time being it will stay with twice a day,” Birnie said. 

So, as of this week, only the morning and evening detour openings are available. 

Before this restricted CR 26 option, the alternative detours included either a northern route taking traffic onto I-70 or the southern route taking people on Highway 160 through Pagosa Springs. Both were more than 300 miles.

Kebler Pass potential

County and CDOT crews mobilized machinery Monday and Tuesday of this week to start working to clear Kebler Pass Road of snow and prepare it to open earlier than normal to provide another route from Gunnison County to Montrose. That road typically opens on Memorial Day weekend after spring runoff is mostly over and the roadway dries out. Crews are currently working to prep the road from both sides of the pass. 

“It will still take quite a while to actually get this open for traffic,” Birnie reiterated. “But this early effort to get the road dried and repaired will definitely move us along in that direction.”

If Highway 50 is closed into the summer tourism season, Kebler Pass Road would be expected to see a major bump in traffic volumes. Eastbound traffic on Kebler empties onto Crested Butte’s Whiterock Avenue and Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald said there are more questions than answers at this time. She said the town and county are starting to contemplate how to handle potential major traffic increases on the road. “We are just starting to think through traffic volumes and what related traffic calming measures might look like,” she said. 

Initial ideas include increasing signage along the road and in town, an increase in the number of traffic calming measures such as the implementation of more chicanes on Whiterock Avenue, traffic calming devices at the Woods Walk parking area and flower box “islands” at the bottom of Kebler Pass Road and at Whiterock and Sixth.

Only two bridges in state with T-1 steel issues…both in Gunnison County

The Middle Bridge, along with the shorter Lake Fork bridge two miles west of the Middle Bridge, was constructed in the early 1960s and used so-called T-1 steel fabrication. That T-1 steel was found to have defects in other bridges around the country, so any similar structures were slated for comprehensive inspections. A crack about halfway on the span of the Middle Bridge was discovered during an inspection earlier this month and on Thursday, April 18 it was determined by CDOT and Federal Highway Administration (FHA) officials to immediately close the bridge to all traffic.

A 2021 memo from the FHA stated that the 800-foot-long Sherman-Minton Bridge over the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky and Indiana was closed for five months in 2011 after inspectors found cracks in ties made of T-1 steel and repairs were done. The Hernando de Soto Bridge on Interstate 40 over the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee and Arkansas was partially closed in 2021 for almost three months when fractures were found in girders made of T-1 steel on the 900-foot-long structure.

The only two bridges in Colorado with that type of T-1 steel are the two bridges going over Blue Mesa Reservoir. The Blue Mesa Middle Bridge was opened in 1963.

CDOT chief engineer Keith Stefanik said Tuesday that the ongoing inspections, mainly from CDOT rope teams, have resulted in more cracks being found on the bridge. Inspectors have not yet determined if the cracks lead to the same type of defects found last week that shut down the bridge. Stefanik said officials are “creating a menu of options” to deal with the final situation. “We are still gathering a lot of data from across the country, and we haven’t encountered a T-1 bridge that needed a total replacement,” he said. “But every bridge is different.”

He said the Middle Bridge has been inspected regularly every two years and until this year, no cracks or defects were discovered.

 “The inspectors first noticed a line crack and that created concern. It was determined Thursday (April 18) after a second inspection that we needed to close the structure to traffic as well as to the inspectors that were on the bridge. We are doing a structural analysis to determine our necessary paths forward,” he said. Stefanik said that the defective crack is about three or four inches long but after conducting an ultra-sonic test, basically a sonar reading, it was determined the crack is much longer within the structure of the bridge steel. 

According to a CDOT press release on Tuesday, “A snooper truck, an under-bridge inspection bucket truck, staged on top of the bridge is helping inspectors get a better look at the underside of the bridge while two CDOT rope teams hang from the side of the structure to grind away paint for a better look at weld joints and potential defects. Representatives from several engineering firms are evaluating inspection results for the bridge at Dillon Pinnacles to determine the best course of action for repairing the structure,” the release stated.

Karen Stuart, chair of the 11-member state transportation committee said an initial $10 million has been allocated this week from the board to CDOT for this bridge situation. She indicated the board expected more money to be needed.

CDOT deputy executive director Herman Stockinger said Tuesday the agency understands the hardships that come from closing the bridge. “While the action was sudden,” he said, “it was imperative to avoid a potential catastrophic incident. We acknowledge the destructive impact on lives and know people are dealing with extraordinary measures.”

Summer issues and general awareness

CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew said last week that the gravity of the situation is not lost on the agency. “We understand the impacts this is having. We are committed to working with everyone impacted by this to work through the disruption. We understand the significance of the closure,” she said during a media briefing on April 19. “We certainly know how important the economic significance is with tourism as we ramp up into the summer months.”

Some families living on the west side of the bridge in places like Sapinero and Cimarron had children in the Gunnison schools when the closure was implemented. Luckily a U.S. Forest Service employee had access to a boat that was able to ferry the children across Blue Mesa.

In a Facebook post, local outfitter GSO Fishing (Gunnison Sports Outfitters), offered to help those in need and several people took them up on it. (See story on page 10). 

While boating beneath the Middle Bridge is allowed, it is not recommended to linger. “Boaters are requested to NOT hang out below the bridge,” said Curecanti National Recreation Area superintendent Stuart West. 

“They may pass beneath the bridge, but for the safety of the crew working on the bridge inspections, CDOT has requested that boaters do not linger in the area,” West said.

Stefanic added that CDOT doesn’t want boats beneath the bridge given safety concerns if things like tools and materials being used are dropped. He said the bridge is safe, but the loads are concerning. He also said the concrete “substructure” has no issues. He also said inspections and work will continue depending on the weather. “We will only stop if the weather becomes unsafe,” he said. 

Gunnison Valley Health (GVH) is also monitoring the situation. GVH noted last week that, “The closure of the Highway 50 and Middle Bridge does present numerous serious health and safety risks to the community, but GVH Incident Command is working on mitigation plans for all critical services. Gunnison Valley Health Paramedics have plans in place to ensure that patients in need of a higher level of care can be transported effectively. Gunnison Valley Health CEO, Jason Amrich, said that the health system is working with state and local agencies to ensure that patients have access to care and critical supply deliveries.”

CDOT officials emphasized that “Anyone with questions can reach out via 970-648-4423 or us50bridge@gmail.com. Calls will be closely monitored and will receive a prompt reply. Information is also available on the project website at bit.ly/us50bridge. Travelers should refer to COtrip.org or the smartphone COtrip Planner app to plan an alternate route.”

Assistant Gunnison County manager for Public Works Martin Schmidt said from the county perspective, the bridge closure is a day-by-day situation that is changing as new needs become apparent. He said about five feet of snow is still on top of Kebler Pass with ice underneath. “We are being careful to not lose the alternative routes,” he said. “We are going slow so we can go fast.”

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