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State seeks $116 million for cleanup along I-70 in Glenwood Canyon

It remains unclear when the heavily traveled route may reopen
Colorado Department of Transportation crews work to clear Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon after the interstate closed because of mudslides on Aug. 5. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post, pool photo)

Gov. Jared Polis is seeking $116 million in federal aid to support cleanup and repairs along Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon, after tons of soupy mud and debris cascaded onto the highway, indefinitely closing one of the state’s busiest thoroughfares.

The Polis administration sought the aid through the Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief program and requested that 10% of it – $11.6 million – be issued in an expedited manner.

“While Coloradans understand the magnitude of destruction, the disruption to people’s lives and livelihoods grows as the interstate remains closed,” Polis and Colorado Department of Transportation Director Shoshana Lew wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FHWA Acting Administrator Stephanie Pollack.

On Tuesday, the FHWA announced it would provide the state $11.6 million through its quick-release process, the governor’s office said.

The interstate has been closed since Aug. 1, with no timetable for reopening, after transportation officials found extreme damage to the road from recent storms. Four inches of rainfall fell in the area in five days, instead of the usual 2.4 inches in a month. Motorists must use alternate routes, which add several hours, to navigate the closure.

Debris piles – up to 10 feet deep in some areas – have shut down the interstate repeatedly this summer after heavy rains cascaded down the steep slopes along the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar, bringing down rocks and mud.

The Colorado Department of Transportation closed I-70 through Glenwood Canyon 12 times because of flash flood warnings between June 26 and July 28, according to the governor’s office. At least five flood events caused mudslides and debris to spill onto the road during the same time period.

The aid request comes after Polis issued two disaster declarations last week in response to the damage caused by the mudslides on I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. The governor said it could take weeks to clear at least one lane in each direction and partially reopen the highway, a major corridor that connects the Front Range to the Western Slope.

Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation

The first declaration gives Colorado authority to use the state’s National Guard for traffic control, debris management and unarmed law enforcement support, according to the governor’s office. Polis’ second executive order allows the state to seek federal money, through FHWA’s Emergency Relief Program Funds, to help with recovery.

Polis is preparing to request a federal disaster declaration from President Joe Biden under the Stafford Act and through the Federal Highway Administration, which would provide Colorado federal funding.

Colorado’s congressional delegation also sent a letter Saturday to officials in Washington, D.C., asking the federal government fulfill the request with urgency.

“Without sufficient resources to muster a swift response to this emergency, the economic impacts of the I-70 closure will continue to escalate, disrupting individual livelihoods and posing an ongoing hazard to public safety,” the letter said.

Emergency federal funding would help support debris removal, as well as the funding to study and construct safety improvements to alternate routes to Glenwood Canyon, such as Cottonwood Pass.

The request includes $4 million for debris removal, including maintenance staff costs, and $20 million to cover anticipated repairs, the governor’s office said.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is currently assessing the damage caused by the flash flooding and mudslides in Glenwood Canyon and funding requests are estimates and will be updated in the next two to three months, the governor’s office said in a news release.

Improvements to Cottonwood Pass, which are necessary to withstand heavier traffic in the future, would cost upward of $50 million. The pass is narrow and unpaved between Gypsum and the Carbondale area that becomes a frequent choke point when Glenwood Canyon is shuttered.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.