An open house held Wednesday in Glenwood Springs to discuss design possibilities for the massive Grand Avenue bridge replacement project drew about 60 people, many with questions and sharp opinions.
And for good reason: The new $59 million bridge over the Colorado River is expected to impact the city and the entire Roaring Fork Valley during construction and for decades afterward. Among the myriad issues being considered are the valley’s tourism-based economy, the impact on emergency response and employee commute times, as well as the routing of an estimated 25,000 vehicles daily — businesses and residents on Grand Avenue grappled with unprecedented traffic levels before the recession.
The sheer volume of people involved in the Colorado Department of Transportation project underscores its importance and complexity. In the preliminary planning stages that began about a year ago, CDOT staff have met with downtown business owners and residents who would be affected; Glenwood Springs City Council and city planners; Garfield County commissioners; the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, and Union-Pacific railroad officials. Meetings are planned with officials from Pitkin and Eagle counties, and resource agencies like the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, as well.
“There’s a lot of input on this project,” said CDOT project engineer Joe Elsen. “There are a lot of concerns everywhere you look.”
A 50-year life was envisioned for the Grand Avenue bridge when it was designed and built in 1953 as a two-lane span. In the late 1960s, it was expanded to four lanes, each of which are just under 9.5 feet wide with no shoulders. The current federal standard for lane width is 12 feet.
The total bridge width will likely expand from about 40 feet to 60 feet, or another 10 feet on each side, Elsen said. A pedestrian component could make it wider.
CDOT in 2010 gave the bridge a rating of 47 out of 100 on its safety scale. Elsen told those at the open house that there are structural problems with its piers and concerns about the impact-bearing capacity should there be an accident involving a semi-truck. CDOT’s website on the project also lists exposed steel and corrosion on the railing, girders and bridge supports as concerns.
Construction to bring it up to federal standards is set to begin in 2014. Ahead of choosing which of four proposals will be the preferred alternative — a decision that likely won’t be made until the end of the year — there are computer and physical models to be constructed and quantitative analyses to be performed, said Craig Gaskill of Jacobs Engineering Group, the consultant that CDOT hired.
There also is the trudge through the federal process. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which CDOT must follow because of the use of federal funds in the bridge replacement, there are three levels of environmental clearance.
A categorical exclusion is the simplest, followed by an environmental assessment (EA), a process that the Grand Avenue bridge is currently in. But at the end of an environmental assessment, federal officials can always order a project into an environmental impact statement (EIS) process, something that can take several years, Elsen said. An EIS was required for the widening of Highway 82 through Snowmass Canyon, for instance, he said. There is no timeline for the completion of the project, which is dependent on what environmental review is employed and what design is ultimately chosen.
It’s too soon to tell if an EIS will be required for the bridge, but with “the coordination we’ve had so far, it appears to be an EA,” he said.
Elsen, a veteran of the massive Glenwood Canyon interstate construction project and the replacement of the Maroon Creek bridge outside Aspen, is well acquainted with controversial projects.
“We’re trying to keep an eye toward the aesthetic and also to be mindful of impacts,” he said. “This is a special place. I’ve lived in Glenwood for almost 30 years, and I think we really want to do the right thing.”
The four designs being considered were whittled from 12 original proposals. But long before that, Glenwood Springs residents were divided three ways, said the city’s mayor, Matt Steckler, who attended the open house.
Many in the community continue to talk about options, like an entirely new bridge west of the current one, but they are off the table for now, he said. Steckler said he favors that plan but doesn’t know from where the estimated $500 million to build it would come.
“Historically our community’s been divided in three parts on this: leave Highway 82 where it is, build a new bypass further down the river, or run the bypass down Midland Avenue” in west Glenwood, he said. “People are very polarized about the whole thing.”
The Glenwood City Council has some say in the matter, Steckler said, but CDOT has the authority to deem the bridge unsafe and build a new one “next week.”
Steckler said he hopes the planning process alleviates the kink to traffic flow that the bridge creates. The goal should be to minimize the stopping and starting of traffic, he said.
With summer tourists driving through the valley or staying in Glenwood, and the recovering economy putting more workers on the road, he and other Glenwood residents fear a return of congestion, and its air and noise pollution.
“Back before the economy went down the tubes a few years ago, it was backing up outside south Glenwood, past Wal-Mart” more than 2 miles away, he said. On the other side, back-ups routinely occurred onto Interstate 70.
“It’s been a problem looking for a solution for the past 40 to 50 years,” he said. “And now we have an opportunity to provide some sort of solution for the community and get something done.”
Louis Meyer, a member of the Sunlight Mountain Resort board of directors and CEO of a civil engineering firm in downtown Glenwood, said he was at the meeting because he is very concerned about the city’s future.
“CDOT does a great job of moving traffic from point A to B safely and quickly, but that’s not always in the community’s best interest,” he said. “And I think the community needs to say, ‘Slow down a little bit, this is going to affect us for the next 100 years, let’s do this right.’”
He argued for the bypass alternative — building a new bridge west of the current span — to get traffic off of the main thoroughfare.
“You can imagine having a business on Grand Avenue and having 20,000 to 30,000 cars and trucks a day going right by your business,” Meyer said. “We’ve turned from a tourist- and recreation-oriented community to a community that passes 30,000 vehicles through town to the upper valley every day.”
One man in the audience agreed, demanding that CDOT consider the bypass and “give us back our town.”
But Steckler, Elsen and Gaskill said that proposal is not feasible. Steckler said that in addition to the lack of money for such a plan as opposed to the current funding that’s available, the political will also does not exist.
And Gaskill said the city of Glenwood would have to take over ownership of the current structure because the Colorado Bridge Enterprise, the state entity that maintains bridges, would own the new span.
One alternative calls for a new bridge at the existing location connecting to Pine Street north of 6th Street.
The other three proposals are more radical, with one that would change the alignment so the northern section of the bridge would land farther west, near the I-70 off-ramp by Village Inn. That option would force the relocation of the Shell gas station by the off-ramp, where a roundabout would be built, and could affect the city’s “hotel row” area.
It also could impact businesses that rely on the current alignment for customers, Gaskill said.
Of the other alternatives, one calls for two, two-lane bridges that would be aligned with Pine Street and the other with Laurel Street, which intersects 6th Street near Village Inn.
The final plan also would involve two bridges that would split the direction of travel. Southbound vehicles coming into Glenwood would cross the Colorado River onto Colorado Avenue, while northbound traffic would continue to use Grand Avenue. Both bridges would each be two lanes and flow in one direction.
Each option has pluses and minuses regarding downtown traffic circulation, property impacts, and accommodation for trucks and buses turning into Glenwood or headed out of town.
While it’s still early in the decision-making process, Gaskill said officials believe having only one bridge would be better aesthetically.
The length of construction will depend on which alternative is chosen and “how impactful we want to be,” Elsen said. “You can do a lot fast and it’s more impact for less time, or you can stretch it out.”
A new bridge could be built adjacent to the current span and then moved into place. That would require a complete closure, but if they can duplicate efforts by the state of Utah, which has streamlined its bridge replacement, the closure could be limited to a weekend or even less time.
“Now they’re doing it in like six hours,” Elsen said.
Given the passionate views on the bridge and the effect its potential alignment will have on the city and the valley, that stage could easily be the fastest-moving piece of the Grand Avenue puzzle.