State and local entities working to open shorter local detours after Highway 50 bridge closure

State and local entities working to open shorter local detours after Highway 50 bridge closure

Even inspectors not allowed on the bridge

By Mark Reaman

State officials have no idea when the so-called Middle Bridge crossing Blue Mesa Reservoir located near the Dillon Pinnacles on Highway 50 will reopen. During a Friday morning press conference, the Colorado Department of Transportation said a crack about halfway on the span of the bridge was discovered during an inspection and on Thursday, April 18 it was determined to immediately close the bridge to all traffic.

The closure cut off any direct way to get between Gunnison and Montrose on Highway 50. Suggested detours are more than 300 miles and take more than six hours. The detours can be seen on the COtrip website which directs traffic to I-70 to the north and Pagosa Springs and Highway 160 to the south. CDOT said they are in contact with local officials and hope to help open up local detour alternatives like the Lake City Cutoff Road to reduce the detour time but as of Friday, no local alternative was open.

“The situation is fluid and continues to develop,” said CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew. “CDOT closed the bridge at the recommendation of the Federal Highway Administration due to cracking in the steel. A defect was observed during an early inspection of the bridge and we immediately brought in a second inspection crew with specialized resources to perform other methods of testing. That second inspection took place Thursday and it was during that inspection that we confirmed the need to close that segment of Highway 50. The safety process is working but 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.”

CDOT Region 3 Transportation Director Jason Smith said local traffic will be allowed beyond the closure points on the highway to reach residences “but absolutely no traffic can cross the main bridge over the reservoir at this time.”

Smith said the recommended detours are significant. “We all understand the inconveniences this creates for everyone, and we are actively coordinating with county governments to improve options for residents, businesses and travelers on the Western Slope,” he said. “We are exploring whether it is feasible at this point in the spring to clear local seasonal routes that may be able to significantly reduce the detour time for local travelers. No local detour is open at this time.”

As for the defect, CDOT chief engineer Keith Stefanik said bridge engineers were inspecting the bridge due to the fact other bridges in the country using the same T-1 steel used in the Blue Mesa bridges had experienced issues. “The inspectors first noticed a line crack and that created concern. It was determined Thursday 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. From safety perspective, it was of the utmost necessity to close the bridge.”

Stefanik said that the defective crack is about three or four inches long but after conducting an ultra-sonic test, what is basically a sonar reading, it was determined the crack was much longer within the structure of the bridge steel.

The only two bridges in Colorado with that type of steel were two bridges going over Blue Mesa. The Blue Mesa Middle Bridge was built in 1963.

Lew reiterated that a lot is still being learned about the situation. “There will still be evolving information learned over the next few days,” she said. “We are working to support the county to determine whether there is a way to get the local road open with state help. We are asking for everyone’s patience as we work to help mitigate the situation. We understand it is a significant impact to everyone in the area.”

A parent living in Sapinero said her 10-year-old child was in Gunnison and she wondered if the bridge could be used to reunite the family. Stefanik said not even inspection crews are currently allowed on the structure, so the answer was no. “Our first priority is to understand exactly what is going on with the bridge and what its structural capacity is. The second priority is to get emergency services and additional inspectors on the bridge to understand the situation we are up against,” he said. Stefanick said inspectors will not be allowed back on the structure until it is guaranteed it is safe for them to be on the bridge.

Lew said CDOT understands the potential economic impact of the bridge closure. “We certainly know how important the economic significance is with tourism as we ramp up into the summer months,” she said.

CDOT is communicating with the Federal Highway Administration to coordinate work with the Little Blue Canyon project.

Stefanick said only one crack has been discovered on the bridge. He said there could be more. The magnitude of the repairs ultimately needed have not yet been determined.

Again, as for a timeline for opening, CDOT officials said that was impossible to determine at the moment. The hope is to come up with a track for either getting the bridge fully open, partially open or open to just emergency services only, but not enough information has been gathered to determine that sequence.

CDOT officials said without any loading on the bridge, it is safe for boaters to go under the structure.

We will update the situation on the Crested Butte News Facebook as we learn more.

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