Hwy 50 Middle Bridge partially reopens

Release schedule 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. through Sunday

By Katherine Nettles

The US Highway 50 Middle Bridge at Blue Mesa has partially reopened this week, as the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) made enough progress on the bridge repairs that it began limited openings on Wednesday, July 3, just in time for the holiday weekend. CDOT representatives say they expect the partial openings to remain in place, with some variation in release schedules, until the bridge is fully repaired and reopened permanently this fall. Meanwhile CDOT has planned to start a closer inspection of the Lake Fork Bridge beginning this weekend, which means a one lane closure on that bridge for the foreseeable future.

The Middle Bridge is now open for one lane of traffic, in alternating directions, for 12 hour increments daily, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. through Sunday, July 7. During that time pilot vehicles will guide all traffic. Beginning July 8, the bridge will be open twice daily, from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and again from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. with a single lane alternating directions and again, a pilot car.

The Middle Bridge was closed unexpectedly on April 19 when a routine inspection showed some damage that had become evident since the bridge’s previous inspection in 2022, an issue typical of bridges made with T1 steel. Further inspection found several points of concern and CDOT spent about six weeks identifying problems and creating a repair plan and schedule. Those repairs began in June, and the initial phase of critical repairs is now complete with further work on phases two and three to continue throughout the summer and into the fall. The work is expected to finish by the end of October if all goes according to plan.

Emergency vehicles and those in smaller vehicles can now cross over the US 50 Middle Bridge, and County Road 26 (CR 26) will remain open and maintained as a primary detour between Gunnison and Montrose, with scheduled release times. Kebler Pass is open as well as a seasonal route to that part of the Western Slope. 

Gunnison County public works director Martin Schmidt said that CDOT has talked with the county throughout the bridge closure and repair process. “And we have provided input, but the traffic management is contracted to CDOT,” he said.

“From my perspective, it is heartening that CDOT and their team continue to hit deadlines and deliverables on schedule. This consistency allows the public to plan around this bridge closure and mitigate, but not eliminate, the impact to the community,” Schmidt said.

CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew commented in a press release last week that CDOT would deliver on its goal of opening the Blue Mesa Middle Bridge to limited traffic ahead of July 4. “We continue to work towards completing needed repairs ahead of winter. Over the course of the holiday weekend, the bridge will be open for 12 hours a day, which we hope encourages tourism in this area as these communities are still very much open for business. Starting on July 8, we will settle into a twice-a-day opening schedule to allow crews to continue to work on repairs throughout the day,” she said.

Eastbound US 50 traffic (headed toward Gunnison) will be stopped at the CR 26 turnoff half a mile west of the Middle Bridge. At this stop, traffic will be separated by which vehicles are allowed over the Middle Bridge and which vehicles need to take the CR 26 detour (see sidebar for details). Vehicles traveling westbound on US 50 (towards Montrose) will see signage during the passage times at the CO 149 and US 50 intersection, which will allow vehicles that meet restriction criteria to proceed on US 50 to the crossing point along with those wishing to camp/fish/recreate along the north shore of the reservoir. All other vehicles that do not meet the restriction criteria will need to continue on CO 149 to the CR 26 detour. Signs will be updated at US 50 and CO 149 at the end of the access window (6:30 p.m.) directing all westbound traffic to use CO 149 to the CR 26 detour.

During their regular meeting on Tuesday, July 2, Gunnison County commissioner Jonathan Houck said that he and the other county commissioners had met with U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper last week to discuss the economic and social impacts of the bridge closure. “That was really important,” said Houck. He said they were able to express the frustration that if a natural disaster had caused damage to the bridge there would be federal funding to address it, but not with a crack in the infrastructure because it is not considered natural. 

“The senator shared that frustration,” said Houck. “There are going to be bridges just like these that at some point that will be considered for replacements and repairs.” Houck said there wasn’t funding, however, and Hickenlooper is committed to working on securing such funding.

 CDOT leadership hosted an in-person and virtual public meeting on Tuesday evening, July 2, in Gunnison to outline the limited opening schedule and discuss next steps for the continued bridge repairs. A survey for those businesses affected economically by the bridge’s 10-week closure is now available at https://survey123.arcgis.com/share/7cef1bcbf48242aa82abaec77ea06d0e.

Middle Bridge project details

According to CDOT, crews have completed the first stage of critical repairs on the bottom flange of the US 50 Middle Bridge. That first phase of the repair process addressed areas that posed an imminent risk to structural integrity. Working from a temporary scaffolding suspended from the side of the bridge, in mid-June crews began the process of bolting four plates in four locations. Each plate location’s assembly is about 23 feet long, 2.5 feet wide and 2.5 inches thick, weighing approximately 9,000 pounds. More than 200 bolts were needed to secure each plate in place.

CDOT representatives say that crews spent last weekend modifying the expansion joints on the bridge to prepare for traffic beginning this week, and preparing for quick deck access so that repairs can begin on the top flange on July 8, with bottom flange global repairs starting in August 2024. 

Lake Fork Bridge lane closures

CDOT is now looking at potential repair work for the Lake Fork Bridge, located on the west side of Sapinero, and anticipates lane closures this weekend. Crews installed strain gauge sensors during partial bridge closures last weekend to monitor the effect of traffic loading on the structure. Those will be used to analyze effects of construction activities, such as initial milling operations as crews move into the inspection and potential repair phases of the Lake Fork Bridge. 

Vehicles traveling through Colorado are advised to utilize the alternate state highway detours to the north and south (Interstate 70 and US Highway 160) instead of CR 26 if possible, to maintain the local access route. 

Kebler impacts are heavy 

Kebler Pass is also open, but seeing heavy impacts from increased traffic this year as an alternate route from Crested Butte to the west.

“Kebler is showing signs of wear and tear and while some areas are holding up and some areas are actually improving, others are getting worse,” said Schmidt. “Our traffic counts from the day we opened have been similar to our traffic during our busiest days of the year in past years. We are continuing to perform maintenance, mostly before the weekends, to deliver a safe alternate route to Hwy 50.”

Kebler Pass restrictions include no vehicles over 30,000 pounds, no vehicles longer than 50 feet and no hazardous materials. CR 26 will now allow overweight and over-width traffic. These loads, more than 85,000 pounds and/or over 8.5 feet in width and/or 14.5 feet in height and/or truck tractor semitrailer combinations that exceed 70 feet, require special permitting on both state and County roads. Oversize-Overweight vehicles are required to comply with state regulations found at: https://leg.colorado.gov/content/size-and-weight-limitations.

Travel will only be permitted during the following release times on only Wednesdays for oversize-overweight loads.

Eastbound release times are 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. and westbound release times are 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. Each traffic release window is 30 minutes.

For state permits contact the Colorado Department of Transportation at 1-800-350-3765 or through https://coopr.codot.gov/.

County permits can be obtained by contacting Gunnison County Public Works at 970-641-0044 or emailing publicworks@gunnisoncounty.org or online at https://gunnisoncounty.org/157/Public-Works.

Website resources about the bridge repair project can be found at www.gunnisoncounty.org/1078/Hwy-50-Bridge-Closure, bit.ly/us50bridge and general road conditions and travel information can be found at COtrip.org, including full and single-lane closures in Little Blue Creek Canyon between Gunnison and Montrose. The COtrip app can be downloaded at bit.ly/COtripapp.

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