Is Bridge to Nowhere heading to somewhere?

Official: ‘We think we’re good to go,’ awaiting final record of decision

The Colorado Department of Transportation announced Friday it plans to realign U.S. Highway 550 across a private ranch and connect it to U.S. Highway 160 by a $47 million interchange that includes the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere.”

It is the same decision CDOT reached in 2006 before the agency hit snags in trying to cross the Webb property. Since then, CDOT has undergone an entirely new analysis that takes into account a gas well and the ranch’s historic designation that were not previously considered.

“We’ve done everything everybody has asked us to do,” said Steve Parker, CDOT commissioner for District 8. “We’ve studied the alternatives that the other folks suggested and didn’t find any reason to go forward with those. We think we’re good to go, and we’re eagerly awaiting the record of decision to come down, hopefully this fall.”

The record of decision is the final blessing from federal authorities.

The proposed 1½-mile realignment would cost an estimated $78 million. It would upgrade the highway from two lanes to four lanes and route it across the Webb ranch east of Farmington Hill.

The existing Highway 550 on Farmington Hill would be abandoned. It is too early to say what would become of the abandoned road: local cycling and hiking group Trails 2000 has expressed interest in using it, or it could be revegetated, said Tony Cady, planning and environmental manager for CDOT.

The realignment would connect with the Grandview interchange, which has received little use since its completion last year.

The interchange includes a foot path, a roundabout, access ramps, six retaining walls, a new westbound lane and four bridges – three of which span Highway 160 – including the Bridge to Nowhere.

It is one of three interchanges proposed for the Grandview area: one is planned for the Three Springs intersection and another is planned at the Elmore’s Corner intersection. CDOT also plans to upgrade the 13-mile stretch of Highway 160 between Grandview and Bayfield from two lanes to four lanes.

The Grandview interchange has received considerable criticism from residents, who have said it is oversized and a waste of taxpayer money. Even Denver media outlets have investigated the project, which cost $28.5 million in state funds, $14.4 million in federal funds and $3.6 million in stimulus funds.

Durango lawyer Daniel Gregory, who represents the Webb ranch owners – Chris Webb and his sister, Martha Coutinho – said only time will tell whether his clients and CDOT can reach an agreement on providing a right of way across the ranch.

CDOT needs to acquire about 64 acres, including about 42 acres from the Webb ranch.

Gregory said his clients hope to reach a “collaborative resolution,” but any legal action could take years to resolve.

CDOT rejected several alternatives in favor of one that “bisects the heart of the Webb ranch” and connects with the Bridge to Nowhere, Gregory said.

“We think it’s an amazing coincidence ... they still come back to the design that justifies the ill-thought-out bridge that they decided to build years ago,” Gregory said.

CDOT said the realignment across the Webb ranch is the best alternative when considering capacity, safety, cost and environmental impacts.

The realignment will impact five archaeological sites, said Kerrie Neet, transportation director for Region 5. Two other alternatives that received serious consideration would have affected seven and eight sites, she said.

The final environmental impact analysis is available for public viewing until Aug. 27. CDOT then hopes to receive a formal “record of decision” from the Federal Highway Administration to proceed with the project.

If the administration gives its stamp of approval, CDOT will seek funding for the project next year, Neet said. No construction date has been set.

Until then, the Grandview interchange will continue to receive minimal use.

CDOT said the interchange was built with the future in mind. In 2009, an average of 27,875 vehicles passed through the corridor. A traffic study has suggested that number could triple to 85,910 vehicle trips per day by 2030, if Grandview develops.

Even if Highway 550 never connects to the interchange, the Federal Highway Administration determined the project has “independent utility,” which allowed construction of the project to commence even though it was uncertain if Highway 550 would connect.

The Webbs’ attorney questioned this.

“I don’t think anybody who is applying common sense to looking at this really believes that that bridge has independent functionality,” Gregory said. “But that is what they’ve claimed.”

In addition to needing to obtain rights of way to cross the Webb ranch, CDOT must remove 1.6 million cubic yards of dirt before it can connect Highway 550 to the interchange. That is equal to 80,000 big-belly dump truck loads, or enough earth to fill the lap pool, leisure pool and spa at the Durango Community Recreation Center 732 times.

The realignment was deemed necessary to replace the existing two-lane highway on Farmington Hill, which has steep switchbacks, an abrupt drop-off and has been blamed for several trucks jackknifing.

shane@durangoherald.com

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