A single lane of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon will reopen this evening to traffic led in alternating directions by pilot vehicles, the Colorado Department of Transportation said late Sunday afternoon.
However, the road will be fully closed again at 9 a.m. Monday for more safety work and will be open for only limited hours for the next several days, CDOT communications director Amy Ford said in a media briefing late Sunday afternoon.
The road had been closed because of a rockslide since the evening of Monday, Feb. 15, the longest such closure in the history of I-70 through the canyon.
CDOT planned to start the pilot car operation at about 6 p.m. Sunday, close the road at 9 a.m. Monday and then resume the pilot vehicle operation again at 4 p.m. Monday, Ford said.
The plan for a few days — CDOT can’t say yet precisely how long — will be for pilot vehicles to lead traffic through between 4 p.m. and 9 a.m. Under the plan, the road will be fully closed from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to allow more rock removal and longer-term rockfall mitigation work.
“People driving through there will see a lot of rock still on the roadway” that must be blasted to break apart and hauled away, Ford said. Additional fencing will be erected, and helicopters will be flying in equipment during the day.
The reopening is tenuous, and bad weather, such as the rain and snow forecast early in the week, could result in additional closures, according to Ford and David Eller, CDOT Region 3 program engineer.
Ford said CDOT crews brought down about 400 tons of rock in the past week after a major rockslide at about 9 p.m. Feb. 15 severely damaged the road, forcing the closure.
Ford said crews on Sunday finished clearing a “rock nest” that was of major concern. Workers broke up three boulders of 2 to 5 tons each on Sunday, allowing the agency to feel confident enough about safety to approve the limited reopening.
For the pilot car operation, east and westbound traffic will be led in alternating fashion by pilot cars through a six-mile zone on a single eastbound lane between the Grizzly Creek Rest Area and the east side of the Hanging Lake Tunnels.
The pilot car operation is likely to be in place for several days as CDOT crews continue to assess the extent of damage and begin to make repairs. The damage has been estimated in the range of $2 million to $5 million.
When pilot cars are running, eastbound I-70 traffic will be down to one lane from Exit 116 in Glenwood Springs to the Grizzly Creek Rest Area, where a pilot car will lead traffic for six miles through the rockfall area, CDOT Region 3 spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said.
Westbound traffic will go to one lane at the Bair Ranch Rest Area (mile marker 129) and will meet the pilot car just east of the Hanging Lake Tunnels, she said.
Vehicles longer than 10 feet will not be permitted on the road during the pilot car operations, Ford said.
Motorists should still expect up to hour-long delays getting through the canyon while the pilot cars are operating, especially during peak times when CDOT sees around 300 vehicles per hour pass through Glenwood Canyon.
The other eastbound lane may appear to motorists to be driveable, but will be closed to the public and reserved for highway crews and emergency access. So, people are asked to not get out of their cars and walk around while waiting for the pilot car.
“We want to encourage people to remain safe and stay in their cars,” Trulove said.
After the interstate is reopened to free-flowing traffic, it is likely to be limited to two-way, head-to-head traffic in the eastbound lanes for a period of time while repairs are being made to the elevated westbound section. Motorists should also expect occasional delays as permanent rockfall mitigation work continues, Ford said.
While the road is closed during workdays, cross-state motorists are still asked to take one of two detour routes around Glenwood Canyon, to the north via U.S. 40 and state Highways 13 and Highway 9, and to the south via U.S. Routes 50, 24 and 285. I-70 remains open to local traffic only between Glenwood Springs and Rifle and east of the canyon between Dotsero and Wolcott.
Last week’s closure is the longest to date of I-70 through the canyon. The previous longest such incident was in March 2010, when the road was closed for three days.
“I think the sheer amount and type of rock coming down” was the reason for the length of the closure, Ford said. “It turned into a more continuous event given the nature of rock scaling that was necessary. The others had something similar but more of a first incident and then it was cleanup and repair.”
The 12-mile stretch of canyon east of Glenwood Springs has been closed since the area just west of the Hanging Lake Tunnels was hit by two rockslides on Feb. 15. The second slide did extensive damage to the road, particularly the elevated westbound lanes, which have a gaping hole through the deck.
Lesser rockfall occurred through the week, including a small slide farther west on Thursday morning that knocked out electrical power in No Name. High winds, rain and sleet Thursday slowed work to remove loose rocks that appeared to be in danger of falling.
The massive amount of rock that fell or was intentionally removed from the canyon wall will have a future life, Eller said, either as riprap or by contractors for various projects.