Extensive detour, lengthy closure after I-70 rockslide

10:16 PM, Mar 8, 2010   |    comments
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Around midnight Monday, dozens of rocks, some the size of semi-trucks, fell onto the highway. The rocks range in size from 3 feet to 10 feet in diameter. The largest is estimated to weight about 66 tons.

Stacey Stegman, the spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Transportation, says no cars were hit in the massive rockslide, which happened just west of the Hanging Lake Tunnel. The slide did punch two large holes in a westbound bridge and lanes. CDOT estimates one was about 10 feet long and 20 feet wide. Stegman says the rockslide also caused dozens of other holes and "dips" in the roadway.

No one was injured in the rockslide but officials with CDOT were forced to close the highway to all traffic in both directions at Glenwood Springs (mile marker 116) and at Dotsero (mile marker 133).

Gov. Bill Ritter issued a disaster declaration on Monday afternoon, allowing the state to seek funding from the Federal Highway Administration to help pay for repairs, which could take weeks.

Stegman says several large boulders are currently blocking both the westbound and eastbound lanes, and the highway will likely remain closed for some time.

Geologists from CDOT arrived on scene around 3 p.m. to make a two-hour hike up a mountain to inspect a rock that appeared to be unstable. CDOT says if the geologists determine the rock is unstable, it will be unable to reopen any lanes of I-70 until mitigation work can be conducted.

An official with CDOT says because it will take two hours to hike up to the rock and another two hours to hike back down, mitigation work would not begin until Tuesday at the earliest, since it is unsafe to work at night.

CDOT has implemented emergency contracting procedures and will be meeting with contractors over the next couple of days as they develop repair plans.

Crews were on scene Monday blasting larger boulders into smaller pieces so they could remove them. As of 3 p.m., they had blasted three large boulders, but had "several more" to explode and planned to continue work into the afternoon.

Truck driver Russell Pollock was hauling a load of beer through the area, with his sights set on Washington State.

"They'll have to go thirsty - tough," Pollock said.

Pollock says his delivery was already late and he still had more than 1,000 miles to travel.

"I'll get my drive hours, and I'll get my mileage, so I should still get paid," Pollock said. "But the company might lose some money."

A 16-year-old girl was on her way to take her driver's test when she came to the road closure. She says her heart sank when she saw it.

CDOT is thanking travelers for their patience as they work to repair the highway. Up to 25,000 vehicles a day travel that section, Stegman said.

Because of the rugged terrain, the shortest detour is more than 200 miles long, around the mountainous Flat Tops Wilderness Area. CDOT says U.S. Highway 40 or U.S. Highway 50 may be the best alternative routes for drivers who are trying to drive across the state.

"Unfortunately due to location/geometry there is no easy route around. We are sending crews through Steamboat," Stegman said.

CDOT listed the following alternate routes while repairs are completed:

From westbound I-70: exit at US 40/Empire to State Highway 13 and back to I-70; exit in Silverthorne and take State Highway 9 to US 40 and State Highway 13; exit at Wolcott/State Highway 131 to US 40 and State Highway 13.

From eastbound I-70: exit at Rifle/State Highway 13 to US 40 and back to I-70. Travelers may also wish to use US highways 160, 285 and 50 if traveling to destinations south.

A 1995 rock slide on I-70 in Glenwood Canyon killed three people.

A slide on Thanksgiving Day in 2004 closed the highway and required nearly $700,000 worth of repairs. No one was hurt because the highway had previously been closed for an unrelated crash.

(KUSA-TV © 2010 Multimedia Holdings Corporation with The Associated Press)

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