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U.S. 50 bridge closure may continue for several months

Travelers on Highway 135 headed towards Crested Butte are alerted of the road closure on U.S. 50.
Kate Gienapp
Travelers on Highway 135 headed towards Crested Butte are alerted of the road closure on U.S. 50.

A major road connecting Gunnison and Montrose was closed indefinitely over safety concerns after cracks were found in a bridge over Blue Mesa Reservoir on April 18.
CDOT officials said Tuesday that the repairs to the bridge could take months to complete. Local detours are opening up, easing the pressure on communities on both sides of the closure.

Lisa Young at KVNF in Montrose is on the western side of the road closure, and KBUT’s Kate Gienapp in Gunnison is on the eastern side of the closure.

Maeve Conran:  Kate, you're at KBUT, you're in Crested Butte/Gunnison. I know you've been hearing a lot about some of the medical impacts and some of the impacts on senior citizens. Who have you talked to and what's been going on?

Kate Gienapp: This has been a huge emergency for everyone in the Gunnison Valley because we're pretty geographically isolated especially from medical services.

So one of the biggest issues that we've run into is how are we going to get people to medical appointments that they've had in either Montrose or Grand Junction. A lot of folks here go to St. Mary's (hospital in Grand Junction) or they're seeing specialized doctors on the Western Slope that we don't have here at the hospital. So, it's been interesting to see how people are navigating that.

I just spoke to a woman today who deals with senior transportation - transportation for older adults. A lot of times they're just doing small trips within the Valley, but a lot of other times they're going outside of the county to bring people to appointments in either Montrose or Grand Junction.

Barbara Mason, here in Crested Butte, just talked about what a struggle it's been to navigate the number of appointments - these small windows of openings for this detour route, and how they're going to get home within the day.

Barbara Mason: There's a lot of people that we help that don't drive. They live all over our county and this is the only way they can get to their appointments if they don't have family or friends or if they're not a veteran.

Gienapp: They've had to deal with these really long detours that are up to six to seven hours to get to these appointments. And then still navigate these small windows where County Road 26 is open, that Lake City cutoff. Or even make the appointments, if at all, given these limitations.

Mason: I've had to tell people, a lot of people, we couldn't take them. Over 20 people since that happened.

Conran: Talk a little bit about that detour route. So, County Road 26 has opened up but there was a concern about how some of these roads aren't accessible yet because of snow. But they're also not designed to have as much traffic as you would typically have on a highway. So that means that there's only these small windows for traffic each way. Talk a little bit about what that means.

Gienapp: CDOT and our county commissioners have talked a lot about how this is a native surface road, and like you mentioned, it's not really meant to handle the level of traffic that's seen on Highway 50. So, one of the concerns initially was: how is this road going to be able to handle all of these vehicles? And that's part of the reason why they have these limited openings on County Road 26 - just to maintain the integrity of the road with so many travelers. And we've brought in however many pounds of gravel just to kind of level out the road to make sure that it's in good shape as we move forward.

And this is another conversation that we're having with Kebler Pass. Kebler Pass typically opens on Memorial Day Weekend. Of course, we're trying to open sooner than that, but I think just last week we had about five feet of snow at the top of that pass. And even when we plow the snow we still have to let the ice and everything dry before we let travelers use that pass. Otherwise, it'll just get so damaged with ruts and mud that we'd have to close it again, which would be really hard for the community.

An early morning view from the alternate route on County Road 26.
Kate Gienapp
An early morning view from the alternate route on County Road 26.

Conran: Well, Lisa at KVNF, I know that you're speaking to folks in the community whose businesses are being impacted in and around the Montrose, Delta, and Paonia area. There was a report that Brodie Wilson at KVNF did where he spoke to a moving company. That company has a lot of business in Gunnison on the other side of the bridge from where you are.

Noah Vogenthaler: Noah Vogenthaler, Vogies House Moving out of Montrose, Colorado. It's going to add probably two days of travel on each end of the job so probably four days of travel total per job, which is significant.

Lisa Young: You know, it's really interesting, Maeve because this is a company that was over on the Gunnison side, talking to some folks in Crested Butte. And while they were there, they drove over the bridge and noticed that they were doing the inspection on the bridge. So when they came back on their way to Montrose, they saw that the road was closed. Now they're looking at adding 12 hours per trip one way to go around I-70 to do their business and it's greatly affecting them.

I think they said something like 50 percent of their business is on the other side of the bridge, on the Gunnison/Crested Butte side of the bridge. So that's a big impact for one local contractor and we know there's many more who are being affected by the closure of the bridge.

Conran: I know a lot of people listening now will have connections to both your communities because maybe they're not living in the area but they've gone there to recreate and they've gone there as tourists.

There's going to be a huge impact on tourism and I know, Lisa, you've spoken to Zenzen Gardens in Paonia who welcome tourists, they have people who can stay over, they have weddings. We're getting into the season where we're going to see a lot of that type of business and activity. What are some of the impacts that they have said they're concerned about?

Young: You know, that's an interesting story. Cindy Sorenson, the owner there of Zenzen Gardens in Paonia, she was also impacted by the Highway 133 closure that we had last year.

Cindy Sorenson: It's the same scenario as last year. It hurts everybody in our valley because if people aren't coming over here, to relax and enjoy what we offer, it affects everybody. It affects the grocery stores because now I'm not buying as much things as I need. I'm not buying cheese or I'm not buying other products that I need to run my business.

Young: Now they're having this impact with a U.S. 50 bridge being closed. Cindy has already seen a number of cancellations. She said she's not even going to advertise over in the Gunnison/Crested Butte area because she figures nobody's going to want to come that direction.

Sorenson: It’s a headache. And on top of that, I'm losing money and putting my time and energy somewhere else where I could be putting it to make more money. So it's just like a double whammy.

A line of traffic waits at the County 26 bypass.
Kate Gienapp
A line of traffic waits at the County 26 bypass.

Young: You don't think of that bridge closure between Gunnison and Montrose affecting an area like the North Fork Valley: Paonia, Hotchkiss, Crawford area, but it does because of many people use U.S. 50 to come from the east. They like to come through Gunnison and Montrose, then they'll come up U.S. 50 to Delta and they'll go up Colorado Highway 92. So a lot of the folks right now in our area - everyone I've talked to so far that does retail or has cattle - it's numerous people that are being affected from grocery stores to gas stations.

You know, you just start to see how it spreads out. And as time goes on, I think we're going to see more and more folks saying “Wow, this is really impacting me maybe more than I thought it would.” Let's face it: a lot of people do not want to travel seven or six hours around the detour to get to these places.

Copyright 2024 Rocky Mountain Community Radio.

That story was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Maeve Conran has been working in public and community radio in Colorado for more than 15 years. She served as the news director at KGNU in Boulder/Denver until 2020 and has since been working as the Program Director at Free Speech TV based in Denver, as well as host/producer of the Radio Bookclub podcast and radio show which is a collaboration with the Boulder Bookstore.