CDOT announces plans to relax automatic closures of main highway

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Rick Langenberg

Local business operators in Teller County and area motorists and commuters may finally receive the break they deserve this summer.

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has announced new guidelines that will no longer require U.S. Hwy. 24 to get shut down in the Ute Pass as a pre-emptive move during the prediction of major rain storms. Last year, Hwy. 24 closures served as a major headache for Cripple Creek casinos and scores of businesses in Woodland, giving Teller County the image of a place closed for business. Representatives of the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce and other organizations have lobbied hard for the last year to get the state to ease up on its closure policies, citing the fact that this action scares many motorists and visitors. They also cited the negative impacts for local events.

Instead, CDOT will now send personnel to areas along the highway in Green Mountain Falls, Cascade and the lower Ute Pass to monitor the situation, if a flash flooding is announced by the National Weather Service. If debris or heavy flooding causes hazardous conditions, then the highway will be shut down, and these closures will be enforced through the recent installation of 10 gates.

In addition, residents will be advised of the probable length of these closures through extensive electronic signage.

Still, if these areas get pounded with more than an inch of rain within a short duration, Teller and Colorado Springs-bound motorists along Hwy. 24 have to prepare for a temporary closure of the main highway.

But local business operators no longer have to worry about mandatory highway closures, a reality that clobbered commerce for the last two seasons, following the Waldo Canyon fire.

The most expensive fire to ever strike Colorado created huge floods due to the lack of soil and trees to stop extensive rain water, which gushed straight down the mountain onto the highway. These floods led to the death of a Divide resident and created a river of trapped vehicles during the summer of 2013.

Last summer, many local business owners, though, believed that the state went overboard with its closure policies, as the highway was often shut down due to the mere appearance of rain clouds. The closures, coupled with a big facelift of the main street in Cripple Creek, led to a disastrous summer for casinos. During the last two summers, Hwy. 24 was shut down about 25 times, according to state officials. This definitely had major impacts on local businesses that rely on tourists, visitors and gamblers during the summer.

Casino operators are cautiously optimistic that better times are ahead. Besides more flexible highway policies, the state has been slowly making progress in flood mitigation work along Hwy. 24, investing millions into installing new culverts, repairing slopes and developing new channels and more flood-proof infrastructure.

According to CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson, the state has searched for a balance between protecting the safety of the motoring public and working with local communities and businesses.

The news has already been well-received by Cripple Creek casino operators and local business leaders.

Hwy. 24 closures created a big image problem for the Ute Pass and Teller County, with visitors and tourists not sure if they should wait it out or attempt an alternative route, via Canon City or Denver, options that often required a two and a half-hour one-way drive. The news is also a big relief to the thousands of commuters, who drive between Teller County and Colorado Springs for work. In Woodland Park, more than 50 percent of the households have at least one member who commutes on a daily basis, according the findings of a state demographer.

This forced many workers to set up overnight lodging in Colorado Springs during rainy periods.

Chamber officials tried to relay the fact that alternative routes were available and publicized these options. But regardless, the closures created much angst among motorists.

CDOT officials, though, caution if the Ute Pass gets bombarded by flash flood conditions, the road will probably shut down. “We’ll still have people in place and be ready to close the that highway on a moment’s notice,” said Wilson. Also, it will take about 10 years for conditions along the Waldo and Williams canyons to return to a semi-normal state.

In addition, the prospects of the Waldo Canyon hiking trail, one of the more popular routes in the lower Ute Pass, getting reopened again don’t look very promising.