Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the director of the Colorado Department of Transportation said Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon will reopen by Saturday afternoon following mudslides that caused "extreme damage" to the roadway in late July.
The interstate closed through the canyon on July 29 after at least 10 large mudslides, which were caused by heavy rain on the burn scar of the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, covered the road, sometimes under as much as 12 feet of mud. It has remain closed since.
CDOT announced Wednesday morning that I-70 is expected to partially reopen by Saturday afternoon.
All lanes will be open with the exception of a 3/4-mile stretch near Blue Gulch at milemarker 123.5, which will have just one lane moving in each direction, CDOT said. Blue Gulch is where the most significant damage was, CDOT said. The eastbound lanes have a 15-foot hole that crews are working to temporarily repair so they can open one lane. It will be filled and repaved, followed by some safety tests. On the westbound side, crews are moving rocks and setting up "super sacks" to stack in case of any rockfall.
Polis, CDOT Director Shoshana Lew and other state officials surveyed the damage together.
This morning I visited Glenwood Canyon to get a firsthand look at damage caused by the mudslides and meet with engineers who are working hard to get the highway reopen. pic.twitter.com/Eg5xl6DNLz— Governor Jared Polis (@GovofCO) August 11, 2021
"When this was covered by about 10-12 feet of mud, we didn't know the exact extent of the damage. As the mud has nearly all been cleared, we find that the major damage is about a 15-foot pothole — you might call it a pothole from hell. No road for about 15 feet — that needs to be fixed by Saturday," Polis said during Wednesday's tour of the damage. "On the upper level, (there was) some degradation, some safety improvements that need to be made. We are in many ways fortunate that the structural damage wasn't worse. There could've easily been additional holes, there could've been larger gaps, that could've taken days or weeks to repair."
Polis said clearing and reopening I-70 through the canyon is the state's top transportation priority.
"This corridor plays a vital role in our state’s economy and for many Coloradans traveling to get to work, school, and homes along the western slope. CDOT and State Emergency Operations have made tremendous progress in cleaning up and removing tons of mud and debris that have completely blocked off access to this roadway,” Polis said. “As the state recovers from this incident and reopens this corridor Saturday afternoon, we will continue to need strong federal partners in the Biden administration and our federal delegation.”
Rep. Lauren Boebert also toured the mudslide damage Wednesday and provided the following statement: “I am grateful to all the contractors and CDOT employees who are working around the clock to reopen this critical artery for Western Colorado and the West. Having an opportunity to see this catastrophic disaster firsthand has reinforced the severity of this event and the need for long-term resiliency. I will continue leading the charge to get I-70 fully reopened while collaborating with regional stakeholders to find viable solutions moving forward.”
Polis said he wants all lanes fixed and completely open by Thanksgiving.
Background on the long-term I-70 closure
On July 29 afternoon and overnight into the following morning, more than 100 people were trapped on I-70 through Glenwood Canyon due to mudslides.
By the early afternoon of July 30, CDOT officials said they had evacuated 108 people from the area or moved them to a safer spot.
Nobody was injured. However, CDOT said following an assessment of the road, they found "extreme damage" to the highway, including to the viaduct structure. On Aug. 2, Polis said it will take “a few days to a few weeks” before any lanes of I-70 in the canyon would reopen.
To get around this closure, westbound traffic can exit at Silverthorne and travel north on Colorado 9 to U.S. 40, then west to Craig. From Craig, take Colorado 13 south to Rifle and back on I-70. Eastbound traffic will need to exit at Rifle and take the same route in the other direction.
A few days after the closure, on Aug. 4, Polis officially issued two disaster declarations in response to the mudslides. One activates the State’s Emergency Operations Plan, which enables state agencies to better coordinate their response, and provides additional funds to respond to the damage and repairs needed in the impacted areas. It also allows the use of the Colorado National Guard for traffic control and debris removal.
The second Executive Order enables the state to seek federal funding assistance.
Polis, Lew, and CDOT Chief Engineer Stephen Harelson sent letters on Aug. 8 to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg asking for $116 million in federal money, including $11.6 million as soon as possible, to help clean up the mudslides, repair I-70's damage, and study improvements to nearby roads that could be used as workarounds. The request for a quick disbursement of $11.6 million in federal emergency relief funding was granted on Tuesday.
“The damage to I-70 represents an immediate threat to the economy of the region and the safety of the public,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “These emergency relief funds reflect our commitment to helping Colorado respond to this emergency.”
The USDOT and FHWA said the additional funds the state requested “may be available later to continue repairs to I-70.”
Glenwood Canyon has been shut down several times over the past few months after mudslides washed up on the roadway.
CDOT said there is no easy solution to the problem. The mudslides stem from the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar. The human-caused fire started August 10, 2020 in Glenwood Canyon and burned more than 32,000 acres in the White River National Forest. CDOT said due to the size of the burn scar and terrain of the canyon, mitigation is nearly impossible.