The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and SEMA Construction — the firm contracted for the Iron Springs bypass — have begun discussing how they are going to keep Highway 9 traffic moving smoothly and safely while they mothball the project for the winter. They plan to decide which of three transit options to commit to by the first week of October, ensuring SEMA has enough time to prepare for the coming snow.
The two-year, $23 million dollar project is one of the county’s more ambitious transportation improvements. It will convert a stretch of Highway 9 between Frisco and Breckenridge from two lanes to four, cutting out a tight turn known as “Leslie’s Curve” in the process.
While locals have gotten used to navigating the warren of plastic cones and concrete barricades that mark the beginning of the construction zone, that arrangement won’t cut it when the winter snows come.
That leaves three options: the “split alignment,” with northbound traffic on the existing road and southbound on the new; the new alignment, half-finished but still able to safely move north and southbound traffic in two opposite lanes; and a rearrangement of the current road that makes it safe for winter while construction is on hold.
“There is no specification for what the alignment has to be over the winter,” said Jason Laabs of Cirque Civil Engineering, who is contracted as project manager for CDOT. “In the beginning, everyone just expected a long-term, decommissioned zone for the winter. If they don’t get the split alignment ready in time they’ve done nothing wrong.”
Regardless of the alignment, CDOT wants to make sure the stretch of road is safe come winter. Starting Oct. 1, it can begin directing SEMA to focus on winter shutdown efforts ahead of the typical early-November end-of-the-construction season.
“If they stick with the current road, a bunch of work would need to be done to make it safe for winter,” said assistant county manager Thad Noll. “If we left it the way it is now, people would be crashing.”
SEMA would need enough time to shore up the current arrangement by widening lanes, making markings clearer and moving the concrete barriers from the edge of the road so it could be plowed.
The new alignment — with opposing traffic travelling in two adjacent lanes on the partially completed stretch of new road — would be ideal for both parties.
“The biggest advantage is snow removal,” explained Laabs. “It would be easier to plow on the new road because there would be no steep inside slope and there’s more room for snow storage.”
Officials and SEMA representatives said it is still too early to tell which of the three scenarios is most likely, but SEMA said it is pushing for the new alignment so it can begin deconstructing the old highway as soon as possible.
The company said it is optimistic about at least getting the split alignment, but CDOT has its doubts, according to a person familiar with the talks.
Given the current uncertainty, the next two weeks of construction will prove decisive, determining whether or not CDOT gives the green light for a push or decides to play it safer by preparing the current road for winter.
“They need to have at least a few weeks so they don’t get stuck,” said Noll. “If the snow comes and it doesn’t go away, there’s no more paving.”
Crews working hard into the evening on Tuesday said they were determined to get both north and southbound lanes finished on the new road by winter. Amid the din of backhoes and steamrollers, one worker couldn’t say for certain whether or not it could be done.