Closures of Colorado’s main east-west thoroughfare this summer have sent drivers on hourslong detours — bringing added traffic and a welcome boost to some towns and businesses on the alternate routes.
In Craig, there’s been a bump to restaurants and grocery stores. In Rifle, Interstate 70 closures have led to people milling around town or booking motel rooms for overnight stays.
“I talked to quite a few people in our restaurants (who) were traveling through,” said Diana Lawrence, a real estate agent who chairs the Colorado River Valley Chamber board of directors. “I didn’t hear any complaints coming out of any of the businesses.”
Other spots on the detour road, however, have largely seen increased traffic, frequent requests for directions or drivers speeding along town roads, trying to make up for lost time.
“For the most part, people just kind of fly on by,” said Trudy Burri, with the Meeker Chamber of Commerce’s visitor center.
The stretch of I-70 that runs through Glenwood Canyon is particularly prone to mudslides after the Grizzly Creek fire in 2020 left behind a burn scar, an area where water is more likely to run off the soil — like raindrops off a car hood — than to be absorbed.
Between late June and late August, I-70 through Glenwood Canyon closed nine times as state officials prepared for flash floods or cleared the roadway after car and truck accidents. That stretch of the interstate closed 17 times in the summer of 2021, including about a dozen times before a July mudslide trapped more than 100 motorists overnight and closed part of the highway for several weeks. In the summer of 2020, I-70 closed once for two weeks because of the Grizzly Creek fire.
The detour recommended by the Colorado Department of Transportation during closures runs west from Glenwood Springs to New Castle and Rifle, up to Meeker, Craig and Steamboat Springs and down to Kremmling or Silverthorne. Drivers could also head south from Glenwood Springs to Basalt and Aspen and then drive north through Leadville.
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During the two weeks the interstate was closed because of the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire, 12,500 additional vehicles used both north and south detour routes, said Elise Thatcher, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Now, much of the traffic flows north because there is construction on U.S. 50 on the other route.
In Meeker, officials have seen more drivers speeding through town on Colorado 13. State patrol and the local sheriff’s office have helped enforce speed limits. Burri would like more road signs urging drivers to slow down or for drivers to pull over and see what Meeker has to offer.
“Other than just stopping for maybe gas and some coffee, it’s not a big impact other than the traffic it’s brought to the town,” she said, of the I-70 closures.
In Kremmling, I-70 closures bring long lines of drivers waiting to use the bathroom at the locally owned grocery store. There’s also more traffic on large sections of Colorado 9 and U.S. 40 where there is no shoulder and no passing lane. Mayor Grover Pryor is particularly concerned about the safety of drivers and bicyclists on those routes.
Greg Fulton, with the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, said the detours add uncertainty and costs to trucking companies and drivers, who are required to take mandatory 10-hour breaks after about 11 hours of driving.
“When the detour goes into place, it makes it from a one-day trip to a two-day trip,” Fulton said, using the example of a driver moving goods from Denver to Grand Junction. And when there’s a driver sitting on the West Slope because they’ve run out of hours, it’s not easy to have another truck pick up their route, due to an ongoing driver shortage, Fulton said.
The closures have also highlighted the need for an alternative to I-70, a critical transportation artery, especially with population growth and the possibility of future natural disasters like the ones in Glenwood Canyon, he said.
While the transportation department is doing a good job and is focused on safety, the “reality is I-70 is a lifeblood to the region and nation,” Fulton said. “When Glenwood goes down, we need to have some sort of reasonable or realistic route available to us.”
Elsewhere on the detour, I-70 closures have boosted local businesses.
The closures force people who wouldn’t normally stop in Rifle or nearby Parachute to get to know the towns, which are trying to expand their tourism industry as oil and gas activity declines, said Lawrence, the Rifle real estate agent. The transportation department stops interstate traffic at Rifle and Dotsero, a few miles from Glenwood Canyon on either side, to prevent that city’s intersections from jamming.
In Craig, the interstate closures have given the town’s recently revamped downtown a “bigger audience,” said Kristin Skowronski, visitor center receptionist at the Craig Chamber. One downside is that the area’s roads are not built to handle commercial traffic and the rerouted drivers have increased congestion, she said.
And in Steamboat Springs, the owner of Carl’s Tavern and the Truffle Pig, Scott Engelman, said I-70 closures bring a slight increase to business, in spite of ongoing construction surrounding both his establishments and an overall summer of slower-than-usual sales.
“I’ve also talked to a lot of my friends in the industry in Aspen and Vail and Telluride, and they’ve all experienced a little bit of softness this year, compared to last year,” Engelman said.
International destinations reopening for travel, the strength of the U.S. dollar in foreign countries, and high inflation and gas prices all could have contributed to the lower business activity, Engelman said.
A recent crackdown on short-term rentals in Steamboat Springs — including a ballot measure to increase taxes on the listings to offset a housing market out-of-reach for many workers — may have discouraged some travelers as well, he said.
Interstate closures in 2022 have generally brought fewer visitors to towns, resulting in fewer traffic jams in cities like Steamboat Springs and Silverthorne, local officials said.
Transportation department maintenance crews are stationed at closure points when there is a flash flood watch, allowing them to quickly close the interstate if the weather worsens. During a flash flood warning, a stretch of the interstate is closed, the state patrol sweeps the area and motorists are warned to expect an extended closure.
Those procedures were in place last summer but the transportation department’s maintenance crews now have more experience responding to potential closures, down to knowing the best placement for portable, electronic road signs, said Thatcher, the CDOT spokeswoman. The department this year also pre-scheduled standby shifts to avoid having staff shorthanded in an emergency. Employees from other department teams, like engineering, were also on standby in the latter part of the summer.
“We had a really good plan for last season that worked pretty darn well to the degree that we could replicate it this season. But it probably does seem like we’re more dialed this season and it’s because we’ve had to do this over and over and over and over again. So we are smoother at it,” Thatcher said. “But it’s still pretty much the same plan.”
CDOT has spent $32 million responding to the 2021 mudslide, and on rebuilding and ongoing rehabilitation work, spokesman Matthew Inzeo said. The transportation department recently received nearly $10 million from the Federal Highway Administration, which will be used to reimburse some of the work done in Glenwood Canyon. The department is hopeful it will receive more funding, Inzeo said.
Officials in Glenwood Springs have worked closely with local law enforcement and the state transportation department to plan for closures after the 2020 fire. Commercial river rafters in Glenwood Canyon have also coordinated with state and local officials since the Grizzly Creek fire to allow them to operate in the canyon under certain conditions, including that they indemnify the transportation department. There have been no major weather disasters affecting the canyon this year, making the summer the first complete rafting season since 2019, said Gregory Cowan, co-owner of Defiance Rafting in Glenwood Canyon.
“There’s been minimal disruptions, certainly in the travel corridor, and that’s — for us in Glenwood — that’s huge,” said Cowan, whose business takes 11,000 to 13,000 people down the river between late-April and September. “I-70 is our lifeline. It’s pretty important.”
There have been no formal studies of the economic impact of the I-70 closures on Glenwood Springs, city spokeswoman Bryana Starbuck said. The city’s sales tax revenue has dipped during periods of extended closure, while still growing year to year. Sales tax revenue was up 18.9% in September 2021 over 2019. It was up 6.18% in August 2021 — when a portion of the interstate was closed — over 2019, she said.
Still, the closures add a sense of uncertainty for residents and workers, who are worried road blocks will lengthen their trips to work or to return home. Workers around Rifle, including those working for construction companies, have sometimes returned from shifts after midnight due to road closures, Lawrence said.
Leadville city administrator Laurie Simonson experienced the stress of an unexpected detour last summer when she was driving from Utah to Denver.
As she entered Glenwood Canyon from the west, she saw storm clouds on the horizon and a man ahead on the highway putting down white cones.
“I’m like, Are you kidding me? I missed getting through the canyon by, I don’t know, 1 minute,” she said. She ended up reaching Denver at 1 a.m., after stopping to get gas in Aspen and groceries in Leadville.
It’s hard to isolate how much of Leadville’s increased economic activity stems from drivers on a detour from I-70, Simonson said. City sales tax revenue increased to $277,788 in May 2022 from $199,485 in May 2021 and $139,192 in May 2020, which Leadville Mayor Greg Labbe attributes in part to inflation, the emergence of Leadville as a destination among roadtrippers during the pandemic, and a court decision that lets states collect sales taxes from online purchases.
“I don’t go to the hamburger place and find out, ‘Are you buying a hamburger to hike the Colorado trail?” Simonson said. “‘Or are you here because you had to take a detour?’”