DENVER – Colorado’s request for a quick disbursement of $11.6 million in federal emergency relief funding was granted Tuesday by the Federal Highway Administration so work can continue to try to reopen I-70 through Glenwood Canyon as soon as possible.
“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 U.S. Department of Transportation said in a news release the $11.6 million would be used to reimburse the Colorado Department of Transportation for work it is doing to reopen Interstate 70 after clearing debris and assessing damage. They will also be used for the extra safety and patrols on the detours.
The USDOT and FHWA said additional funds the state requested this weekend “may be available later to continue repairs to I-70.”
“We are thrilled to have such close coordination with our federal partners to ensure federal resources are quickly on their way to Colorado,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement. “Crews and staff across state government are working in all-hands-on-deck mode to deal with the devastating damage to Glenwood Canyon and I-70, and having the same level of support from federal partners at the Federal Highway Administration ensures we can keep working at a rapid pace to restore this economic and recreation highway.”
Polis, CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew and CDOT Chief Engineer Stephen Harelson wrote letters to Buttigieg and FHWA Acting Administrator Stephanie Pollock on Sunday asking for the $116 million in PHWA Emergency Relief money and asked for the $11.6 million in emergency relief as soon as possible.
The state officials said the federal funding would be critical to not only reopening one of Colorado’s most critical roadways and fixing the damage done by more than a dozen mudslides over the past six weeks, but also toward geohazard mitigation and a future resiliency and redundancy study for alternate routes, like Cottonwood Pass.
CDOT said while the current estimate was $116 million, it would provide a better assessment within 8-10 weeks. And those estimates could easily change if more mudslides occur.
“While it is likely that this number in particular will evolve as we refine our estimates, we believe it is critical, from the outset of this process, to include this initial resiliency cost estimate and stress the importance of improving the safety of key alternate routes that are needed for the movement of people, goods, emergency operations, and the vitality of the supply chain within and through Colorado and the entirety of the intermountain west,” Polis and Lew wrote in their letter to Buttigieg.
Pollack, the acting FHWA administrator, said the agency would continue to support Colorado in its continuing efforts to repair and reopen the road.
CDOT said Tuesday afternoon that good weather has continued to help them in those efforts after hundreds of truckloads of material were hauled away from the canyon over the weekend.
Another 195 truckloads of debris were hauled away from the canyon on Monday as crews dug out culverts on the eastern side of the Canyon and continued to clear mud and other debris from the Blue Gulch area.
CDOT said they were able to dig down to three four-foot culverts that they are working on clearing out Tuesday, with the hopes to clear all the slides from Hanging Lake Tunnel to Bair Ranch on the eastbound side.
On the westbound side, crews are working Tuesday on uncovering a box culvert and building a pad where they will place 60 “super sacks” filled with sand on the north side of the road to help prevent future mudslides from bringing debris down again.
CDOT also said that its engineers believe one lane of westbound I-70 could reopen after material is cleared and more barriers and safety barriers are installed after reviewing the interstate’s infrastructure.
"This confirmation will help expedite the temporary westbound I-70 reopening timeline," CDOT said in the release.
Engineers said one lane of eastbound would be able to reopen once crews can reconstruct 100 feet of embankment and repave. Engineers will be doing additional inspections Tuesday at Blue Gulch, CDOT said.
“CDOT’s maintenance teams have made great progress in recovery operations, allowing our engineers to make similar strides in developing a plan to reopen I-70,” said Director Lew. “Thanks to the fast and strong support of our federal delegation as well as the backing of FHWA, CDOT can continue to work quickly with the assurance that resources will remain available. I want to add a special thanks to FHWA Colorado Division staff who have provided technical support throughout this incident and helped smooth the process to help deliver this quick support.”
Eagle and Garfield county commissioners discussed the future of Cottonwood Pass in meetings Tuesday, looking at six areas that could widen the road and make it safer, which would cost $10-15 million and could lead to closures at Blue Hill if that project is taken on, though officials still believe it could not be a permanent alternative to the interstate.
“We’ve heard nothing but good news so far today,” said Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney. “CDOT’s statement that it will be days, not weeks, until I-70 could be reopened is amazing to hear. Clearly, reopening the highway would provide the most relief to this situation.”
Polis said on Aug. 2 he would declare a state disaster and make a federal disaster declaration request while hinting that Glenwood Canyon could be closed for weeks. He issued two disaster declarations on Friday – one which activated the state’s Emergency Operations Plan and the other which gave the state the ability to seek federal aid.