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Southwest Colorado’s largest interchange project to be completed later this month

Grandview connection dubbed ‘Bridge to the Future’
Julie Constan, Colorado Department of Transportation southwest regional director, speaks Thursday on top of the Gulch A Bridge during a public preview and drive-thru of the U.S. Highway 550 realignment project. The project is part of the Grandview Interchange construction, the largest transportation project in Southwest Colorado in recent memory. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The realignment of U.S. Highway 550, a nearly $100 million project to bypass Farmington Hill south of Durango and connect with the Grandview Interchange – better known locally as the “Bridge to Nowhere” – is finally nearing completion.

Colorado Department of Transportation officials said the connection is expected to open at the end of the month.

A public preview and drive-thru of the interchange was held Thursday.

The realignment of the U.S. Highway 550 connection to the Grandview Interchange south of Durango is expected to open for public commute by the end of the month, CDOT officials said at a drive-thru event Thursday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The project is among the largest of its kind in Southwest Colorado and was given a budget of $98.6 million. Years of funding issues, disputes with property owners and even Native American archaeological discoveries atop Florida Mesa significantly slowed its connection with the Grandview Interchange, lending to the Bridge to Nowhere moniker.

But at a public “open drive” event on Thursday, CDOT officials proudly announced completion of the highway realignment, which they say will lead to greater safety for future commuters.

Steve Parker, a CDOT transportation commissioner from 2001 to 2013, and his successor Sidny Zink, who served from 2013 to 2021, speak atop the Gulch A Bridge during a public preview and drive-thru of the U.S. Highway 550 realignment project on Thursday. The project’s completion later this month will mark the end of travel on Farmington Hill. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

CDOT Southwest Regional Director Julie Constan said the connection is the fruition of a long-term plan to enhance mobility in Southwest Colorado and is key to “future growth, connectivity, mobility, safety and economic vitality for the entire Four Corners area and all communities within this region, which are currently seeing very significant growth.”

Officials appeared eager to shed the “Bridge to Nowhere” sobriquet, repeatedly referring to the new connection as the “Bridge to the Future.”

The event was held atop a 150-foot bridge, part of the realigned connection, to recognize the years of collaborative work between CDOT, construction companies and local entities.

About 150 people attended.

It was also a chance to say farewell to the Highway 550 Farmington Hill route, which will be demolished after Memorial Day, along with the removal of a traffic light at the base of the hill.

‘Good things take time’

Federal Highway Administration Division Administrator John Cater said the connection is the biggest project in the region in recent memory, and proved to be one of the toughest to execute.

Federal Highway Administration Division Administrator John Cater said the Grandview Interchange project and U.S. Highway 550 connection realignment was the largest project in the region in recent memory, and it was among the most challenging. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“This was not a normal project and it was not a simple one,” he said. “The challenges the team faced were unusually complicated and difficult.”

Just determining where to place the realignment was a challenge.

CDOT commissioners had been in decadeslong discussions with rancher and property owner Chris Webb and his sister Martha Coutinho, who own Webb Ranch at the top of Florida Mesa, before a workable realignment was determined.

The Durango Herald reported in 2019 that CDOT originally planned for Highway 550 to cross through Webb Ranch to bypass Farmington Hill and connect to the Grandview Interchange.

In 2018, CDOT filed an eminent domain lawsuit against Webb. The case was settled for $2.5 million.

Webb said on Wednesday that former CDOT Southwest Regional Director Mike McVaugh and his successor Constan were pivotal forces in developing a realignment plan that worked for his family and CDOT.

“Mike and Julie did make the difference, or we might still be in litigation today,” he said. “They were different. And I think they really deserve the credit. Mike broke the ice, and Julie made the cake. Pretty impressive.”

Constan said protecting the integrity of the ranch was Webb’s priority throughout talks with CDOT.

“He really loves how you can get into the middle of the ranch and it’s just quiet. That’s one thing he always would come back to every time,” she said.

The realignment cuts through a portion of land along the edge of Webb Ranch, and CDOT agreed to relocate irrigation lines elsewhere on Webb’s property.

“Between (McVaugh) and I, we did a lot of conversations and a lot of working with Chris Webb,” Constan said. “Mike was really the one who got Chris Webb talking to us.

“All this land where the bridge and alignment goes through from here north was Chris Webb’s ranch. He initially was very resistant to the project. But with Mike’s hand-holding and lots of conversations with Mike, he began to embrace the project,” she said.

She added: “My goal with Chris was just to keep him comfortable and talking to him and understanding the changes and impacts that were coming to him as we were under construction and making it to the ridgeline.”

Cater said besides determining the connection’s alignment, there were archaeological and cultural remains found atop the ridge; wildlife issues; drainage issues; “irrigation issues on the south end of the project” and “geotech issues on the north end.”

Lorelei Cloud, Southern Ute Indian Tribe vice chairman, said the SUIT Growth Fund contributed significantly to the Grandview Interchange and U.S. Highway 550 realignment project. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Connection South Project Director David Valentinelli said funding was another major hurdle. CDOT Region 5 doesn’t receive as much funding as interstate agencies, so Region 5 had to look for funding.

A FASTLANE grant CDOT was awarded in partnership with La Plata County made the project a success, along with contributions from the city of Durango and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Growth Fund, he said.

“Good things take time,” he said. “To put this amount of work down on the ground – we moved over 1 million yards of excavation. That’s not something you’re going to do overnight.”

The bridge connecting Highway 550 to the Grandview Interchange and U.S. Highway 160 is over 500 feet long and over 150 feet high.

And there were delays after construction began in 2020.

“We ran into some challenges with the utility crossing agreement and that forced us to redesign some things that we couldn’t have anticipated,” Valentinelli said. “We addressed the sediment on the Grandview (ramp). That was added scope that we had to deal with.”

Community members and officials gather Thursday on top of the Gulch A bridge during a public preview and drive-thru of the U.S. Highway 550 realignment project. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Funding

The realignment, budgeted at $98.6 million, has received funding from a number of sources, including CDOT Region 5 project funding, other state funding, Federal Highway Administration FASTLANE grants, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Growth Fund, La Plata County and the city of Durango.

The largest piece of funding, $54.4 million, was secured through Colorado Senate Bill 267 and delivered by the Colorado Transportation Commission. Another hefty chunk of funding was $29.9 million from CDOT Region 5, according to Herald reporting in 2020.

Constan said the Colorado Department of Local Affairs contributed $1 million to the project.

Among those in attendance Thursday were former CDOT commissioners Steve Parker and his successor Sidny Zink, both of Durango.

Addressing attendees, Zink said representing Southwest Colorado on the Transportation Commission was “the greatest experience of my life.”

“One of the things I am very proud of is having a hand in getting those last dollars to make this thing finally be about the future,” she said.

Parker said everyone representing the various organizations at the event contributed their part to completing the project.

Eliminating Farmington Hill
Farmington Hill and the intersection will soon close with the opening of the U.S. Highway realignment project. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Valentinelli said in an email to the Herald in February the realignment of Highway 550 and the removal of the Farmington Hill route and its intersection will greatly improve safety for private and commercial vehicles as well as wildlife.

Highway 550 on Farmington Hill is known for being a steep and curvy road, and the realignment will eliminate the need for a signal light at the base of the hill in favor of continuous traffic flow directly into the U.S. 160 interchange, he said.

“During winter snowstorms, Farmington Hill has been prone to severe icy road conditions for motorists, particularly commercial vehicles,” he said. “Vehicles and commercial trucks have been known to lose control, jackknife, or slide off the roadway causing highway closures. The new U.S. 550 realignment and approach into the existing interchange will eliminate these hazardous conditions for motorists.”

The project will include the installation of technology such as cameras and road and weather sensors to allow CDOT maintenance forces to monitor this section of roadway. It will allow for a proactive approach to winter maintenance activities such as anti-icing and snow removal.

Peyton said 50 crashes and 13 injuries, many involving rear-end collisions, occurred at the base of Farmington Hill from 2019 through 2023.

“The removal of the signal is expected to bring these crashes to near-zero in the future,” he added.

He said removing the signal will reduce contact points, or areas where cars may run into each other, eliminate stop-and-go traffic, which reduces the likelihood of rear-end collisions, and improve clear views of traffic where congestion used to obstruct visibility.

Valentinelli said 65% of crashes that occur within the realignment project area involve wildlife. The project will also include wildlife mitigation features that could reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions by 80-90%.

The project led to the protection of important archaeological artifacts as well.

The discoveries were made during excavations in 2018 and 2019 and led to a CDOT documentary that aired on Rocky Mountain PBS in 2022.

Southern Ute Indian Tribal Vice Chairman Lorelei Cloud said tribal members contributed cultural and traditional knowledge to archaeologists.

cburney@durangoherald.com



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