CDOT says US Hwy 50 bridge will open by July 4

Critical repairs to be done July 1, final repairs scheduled for fall

By Katherine Nettles

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has finished its critical inspections of the Middle Bridge along Highway 50 west of Gunnison for bridge safety and repair designs and hopes to have an initial phase of needed repairs done by July. Final repairs will then take place in the fall, aiming to finish before the snow flies. Limited vehicle traffic on the bridge is possible starting in early July.

CDOT hosted a third public meeting on Tuesday, May 21 to update the community on the efforts to address the closure of the bridge along Hwy 50 between Gunnison and Montrose.

The meeting was held in person at the Fred Field Center in Gunnison and online via Zoom, co-hosted with Gunnison County and Kiewit Infrastructure Company. Speakers from each organization gave updates on the bridge closure, inspection and repair schedule, as well as bypass routes and opening schedules. 

Gunnison County commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck recognized county staff, CDOT staff and the Kiewit contractors working well beyond their regular hours over the past several weeks to ensure everyone’s safety and Gunnison County’s connectivity with its western neighbors. 

CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew reported that CDOT and its contractors have made substantial progress in the past couple weeks. She said the goal is to have initial repairs done by early July to allow one-way traffic across the Middle Bridge, and to have all repairs complete ahead of snowfall this fall—but nothing is certain. 

Jason Smith, CDOT Region 3 regional transportation director, said they’ve been fighting the inclement weather to finish paint removal and inspections, and had to shift some crews to night hours when winds have been calmer. Crews finished the initial inspections of all 118 splice points on the bridge on Sunday, May 19. 

“Overall, we found 180 anomalies,” he said of bridge inspections. Anomalies do not mean cracks, but possible weaknesses, he explained, and will be addressed by reinforcing the bridge with several 27-foot long steel plates. 

“We’ve been able to get all that information over to the design team,” he said, and projected that 90% of the repair design and final field measurements would be complete by the end of this week. 

Next, said Smith, fabrication and scaffolding should be complete and steel delivered in early June. Then Kiewit is expected to perform critical repairs, to be complete by July 1, which would allow the bridge to open to limited one-way traffic beginning July 4. 

After the first phase of installing the metal plates by July, crews will then work on the permanent repairs needed to return the structure to full-strength. These additional repairs are targeted for completion this fall, and CDOT is hoping to finish before winter weather arrives. 

Gunnison County public works director Martin Schmidt updated that the main current bypass, County Road 26, has now gone from four to seven daily releases which allows for a lot more vehicles to make passage across the road. He explained that continued closures allow for crews to absorb any delays and manage repairs. 

He said the roadway is slowly degrading from the increased pressure. “In the time since this road opened, we’ve exceeded by about 3,000 the number of cars this road sees in one year,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Schmidt assured that Gunnison County is working diligently on other relief valves, but Kebler Pass Road is just not ready yet. “It was looking really good until this storm came in today,” he said. Once it does open, he said there will be no pilot vehicles or release times, but the road will remain restricted to vehicles no more than 50 feet in length and 30,000 pounds. “And that restriction has been in place for years now,” he added.

Houck said the Gunnison Valley Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) research indicates that the majority of the valley’s summer visitors arrive by vehicle from the Front Range, and the majority of second homeowners come from Texas and Oklahoma who either fly into the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport or come in through the San Luis Valley and don’t use Highway 50 from the west. Schmidt and Lew agreed that CR 26 would remain open as a bypass option. 

Some meeting attendees complained that the local detour is not showing up on CDOT’s website or travel app, Cotrip. Officials maintained that this had been done purposefully to manage local resources and prioritize local use, but conceded they would consider identifying the CR 26 bypass online for summer traffic beginning in June. 

CDOT and Kiewit officials said they plan to more thoroughly inspect the other bridge at Blue Mesa next but expect that even if and when repairs are indicated since they are made of the same type of steel from the same era, repairing it would be a faster process based on what they learned this time around. 

As far as specifics of how the bridge’s partial reopening will go, Lew said they don’t have all those answers yet. “The construction team has spent a lot of the past two weeks trying to figure out the realm of the possible, getting the work done and having it ready as soon as possible,” said Lew. CDOT plans to hold another meeting with more updates in roughly two weeks.

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