Lake City cutoff now open to larger trucks, trailers

Highway 50 Middle Bridge inspection 40% complete

By Katherine Nettles 

Approximately three weeks after the Middle Bridge on US Highway 50 over Blue Mesa Reservoir was closed for safety concerns, cutting off traffic flow between Gunnison and areas to the west, a full analysis of the bridge’s damage and the repairs needed is about halfway done. There is still no estimated timeline of when the bridge might reopen, but one alternate route is opening to a wider range of vehicles this week. Other alternate routes between Gunnison County and areas to the west are not yet ready to open due to inclement spring weather. 

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) announced during a public meeting in Gunnison on Tuesday, May 7 that County Road 26 (CR 26, or Lake City Cutoff), currently the most viable bypass between Gunnison and Montrose, would expand vehicle weight allowances during its scheduled, one-way release times. 

“On Thursday, May 9th, CR 26 bypass will be open four times per day in each direction for local public travel with reduced commercial motor vehicle and trailer restrictions, as follows: the State of Colorado legal maximum vehicle dimensions and weights will be enforced,” according to the announcement. “This will allow trailers and heavier commercial use of the bypass. To maintain this as a viable, safe bypass, traffic will be managed using pilot vehicles. CR 26 is a high mountain native surface road that is not built to sustain US 50 traffic levels.” 

The bypass will not be open to vehicles more than 85,000 GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating), and no oversize loads or hazardous materials will be allowed. This means larger delivery trucks can come through, as long as they would not require a state permit for oversize loading.

CDOT and Gunnison County officials then answered questions during the May 7 meeting, both from those attending in person and via Zoom for those online.

Among the many concerns addressed were how progress is coming toward getting Kebler Pass Road open for through traffic, and when a plan and timeline will be determined to repair or replace the Middle Bridge.  

Bypass route updates

As Gunnison County public works director Martin Schmidt explained, Kebler Pass remains a major challenge. 

“Kebler continues to get snow and rain that slows down our progress immensely,” he informed the Crested Butte News on Tuesday. “We had to cancel mag chloride application due to the moisture and hope to reschedule it for next week.”

Schmidt said crews have been working 10 to 12-hour days, except when snow is falling. “This morning there was six inches of snow on the road. We plowed it open and then on the way down we had two-foot berms from the wind blowing the snow back in. And 16 trees blew down across the road today. We are fighting Mother Nature; it’s one of the reasons it is hard to open this road earlier than we typically do,” he said. 

Schmidt also told the Crested Butte News that crews are plowing Cottonwood Pass on schedule despite more snow at the top this year than there was last year, likely due to wind deposition. He said timing to open the road to Gothic townsite is still unknown.

“We haven’t made any decisions on Gothic, but ongoing snow impacts that timeline as well.”

CDOT officials announced that the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway 50 project at Little Blue Creek Canyon is starting back up in its final stage next Monday, May 13 and finishing as quickly as possible while the road is already closed and the public inconvenienced.

Access to CR 25 remains closed for Gunnison sage grouse protection through May 15, and Schmidt noted that the road has wet conditions, steep grades and switchbacks that are unsuitable for including it as an additional bypass road. But he said they will be able to provide access to residents in the area or those performing work on the road after May 15.

CR 26 will be allowing any vehicles within the guidelines through, said Schmidt, regardless of purpose or residence, but asked that visitors coming into the area for pleasure rather than business still use alternative routes such as Interstate 70 if possible to reduce the impact to CR 26 over the next few months. 

“It is a road that was built into a hillside by someone with a bulldozer 100 years ago,” he noted.

Middle Bridge repair plan, timeline still unknown

CDOT engineers and planners gave a thorough update on the ongoing inspection process for the Middle Bridge located near the Dillon Pinnacles and how that is affecting any plans for the bridge’s future use. 

Shoshana Lew, executive director for CDOT, said getting the right people and parts in motion to inspect the bridge and design its repair while improving bypass roads like CR 26 for heavy traffic has been no small task. She said the bridge’s inspection continues, and there are several repair options being considered in tandem. 

CDOT has now authorized $20 million for the repair, and Lew said it might cost more than currently allocated. CDOT was denied emergency relief funding from the Federal Highway Administration, but Lew said she would fight for more federal funding if needed and she didn’t expect money to be a limiting factor on the repair. 

According to CDOT engineers, the inspection has required scans of 118 locations throughout the bridge, which require extensive paint removal and sometimes removing other structural obstacles first. The scans get sent to labs and examined by experts. 

“Out of all these scans…we have found 25 anomalies,” said Jason Smith, CDOT’s regional transportation director. He noted that the bridge is made of T1 steel, which is three times the strength of normal steel and therefore much more difficult to repair. The welding process also requires a controlled environment to harden, which cannot be done in the field, he explained. 

Jason Proskovec, Kiewit infrastructure project director, said they have determined four bridge repair alternatives, and described them in order from best to worst case scenarios. The best option, he said, uses localized splice plates for more minor overall repair work and requires about 12 tons of steel and perhaps four to six weeks once design is complete. Next, a suspended span addition would require about 88 tons of steel and two to three months to complete; a global plated option would require 325 tons of steel and four to five months. “Our goal would be no later than Halloween around here,” he said, for completing construction. 

The fourth option of a complete superstructure replacement, which is much more intensive, would likely happen in several stages and take up to a year. This option, said Proskovec, looks unlikely but cannot be ruled out yet. Superstructure replacement would entail first doing temporary repairs to safely open at least one lane on the bridge for next winter, and then begin “an accelerated bridge construction technique” in the spring. That construction process would take 12 to 16 weeks, he said, before having one lane open for use and then it would require another two to three months to complete it.  

“All of these options are being looked at in the design in tandem,” said Lew.

She emphasized that only about 40% of the inspection is done, and there have been many delays due to weather, including high winds. 

Lew said CDOT has been procuring materials, namely the full scale of potentially needed steel, in advance so they can begin repair work as soon as experts determine the right course. “We know that every day makes a difference to all of you,” she said.

Keith Stefanik, chief engineer for CDOT, addressed concerns for the other T1 steel bridge at Blue Mesa, called Lake Fork bridge. Stefanik said the inspection crew did look at the Lake Fork Bridge during initial visual inspections this spring, and identified no visual issues. Crews then moved on to the visual inspection of the Middle Bridge during which time they found the troubling visual issues on the Middle Bridge. Stefanik acknowledged that while they are currently focused on the Middle Bridge, “We will eventually go back to [further inspect the Lake Fork Bridge] at Sapinero. They are both built around the same time, and they are the same type of steel,” he said. 

“We are analyzing all the options that we have so we have our design work done and when we get these inspection results that key into the results—we need to know exactly what’s failing, what’s good, where the defects are so we can shore up this bridge—we will hit the ground running,” he concluded.

More information and restriction updates can be found at Bit.ly/us50bridge

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