From The Denver Post (Monte Whaley):
A Dec. 1 deadline to reopen 27 flood-battered Colorado highways was tame compared with the years of complex challenges facing road crews charged with making permanent fixes to damage caused by September’s historic floods. The magnitude of the task is still being assessed while highway managers consider the types of technological and engineering changes they need to make to keep 485 miles of damaged roadway less vulnerable to mass flooding. It may take the Colorado Department of Transportation as long as 48 months to finish the permanent repairs needed on formerly flooded roads, said Johnny Olson, CDOT’s incident commander for the state’s infrastructure recovery force.
“We were charged with getting residents reconnected with their communities by getting these roadways done, and done to ensure safety by Dec. 1, and we did that,” said Olson. “Now we have to go back and evaluate and make repairs based on the long term.”
By Dec. 31, CDOT should have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done. By next spring, work could start on permanent “early out” projects where there was relatively minor damage to roadways. But on larger sections of highway — including U.S. 34 in Big Thompson Canyon — evaluations will take much longer and the work will be more detailed and challenging, Olson said. That road is getting particular attention since it was destroyed by the 1976 Big Thompson Flood and rebuilt to supposedly withstand another catastrophic flood.
“It was built to be indestructible,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper. “You see that it is very hard to be indestructible.”
CDOT Executive Director Don Hunt said engineers are weighing two possible options for the permanent rebuilding of U.S. 34 — reconstructing a road that will hold up against nearly any kind of flood or building a less expensive, but more vulnerable, highway. Those questions and others could be answered over the next few months, Olson said.
For example, he said: “What can we do to prevent this curve from washing out? What kind of striping does this stretch need? And what can we put under the surface of the roadway to make it last?”
Residents shouldn’t expect complete makeovers to damaged highways, said Olson. That’s because funding for repairs — including $450 million in state and federal funds — must be spent on specific damages. About one-third of the $450 million has been spent on temporary fixes, leaving the rest for permanent work, said Hunt.
It’s not clear if more funding will be available to Colorado in the near future, CDOT spokeswoman Mindy Crane said.
“Wherever there is damage, we can look at improving standards to protect us in the future,” Olson said. “But we can’t go through the whole U.S. 34 corridor and make changes.”
County roads crews also face months, or maybe years, of repairs due to the flooding.
“Hopefully, in some areas, we will be able to do permanent construction this summer,” said George Gerstle, transportation director in Boulder County, where the flood ravaged roads into mountain communities and a key segment of Colorado 7 between Lyons and Allens-park. “Others may take another year for design and construction because of the magnitude of the damage.”
County road crews rebuilt some 30 miles of canyon roads in about two months to make them passable, including Sunshine Canyon and Flagstaff Road, Gerstle said. Still, many county roads and bridges suffered heavy damage from creeks leaving their banks and establishing new channels. Crews will be busy doing temporary repairs on many of those areas over the next several months, including Lee Hill Road, Olde Stage Road, Apple Valley Road, Lickskillet Road and Longmont Dam Road. And while that work is going on, the county is looking at designs that will make bridges and roads less vulnerable to major floods that are likely to hit again.
“We are doing significant analysis on how we can construct roads and bridges that can withstand major flooding, which will come sometime in the future,” Gerstle said.
About 35 miles of Larimer County roads were destroyed in the flooding, but now 85 percent are back in operation, said Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly. Officials expect the final miles of County Roads 43, 44H, 47 and 63 to open by Dec. 13.
But there may be bigger issues in Big Thompson Canyon, where seven of the canyon’s 17 bridges are owned by the county and all suffered heavy damage, Donnelly said. Most of the damage was caused by debris from the river that got plugged and overloaded the bridge infrastructure, he said. The county is looking to replace those with bridges that tilt and shrug off the rocks and tree branches that come with flooding, Donnelly said.
“In the long term, we want to be in a better position with our roads and bridges than where we are now,” he said.
Praise for progress
Still, he credits county crews, who worked in tandem with CDOT and contractors, for making formerly impassable roads, passable.
“We had 35 miles of roads destroyed in the flood, and now 85 percent are back in operation,” Donnelly said. “That’s impressive.”
Estes Park Mayor William Pinkham said some major restoration work will probably be needed on U.S. 36 near Pinewood Springs.
Otherwise, most residents are pleased with the temporary fixes along U.S. 34. “If you haven’t driven that road before, you never would have realized it’s a brand new road,” he said.
Mark Milburn, who lives near Allenspark, cheered with others last week when Hickenlooper cut the ribbon on Colorado 7 to reopen the road to Lyons. He, too, praised the speed of contractors and CDOT to get the work done so he could reunite with friends in Lyons. But Milburn worried that shoulders and turnouts on the highway won’t be restored.
“I know they were washed away by the floods, but for safety sake, I hope they will be returned,” Milburn said.
His wife, Sharon Milburn, also wished those huge concrete blocks known as Jersey barriers that funneled traffic away from road crews will disappear soon.
“It would be nice to see them go,” she said. “It would improve the view.”