Rocky road ahead

Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon was considered an engineering marvel when it was designed in the 1970s and constructed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. At the time, it was also the most expensive section of interstate highway not in a major city.

Nature, however, has been unimpressed.

Highway alignments shift. Pavement develops large potholes. And rocks repeatedly fall on the roadway. Most are small, but twice in the past decade, massive boulders have come tumbling from high on the cliffs onto the road.

Sunday’s crushing rockfall didn’t injure anyone, thankfully. But it hammered a huge hole in one bridge and forced the closure of the interstate in both directions, causing major inconvenience to spring-break travelers and all Coloradans trying to get between the Front Range and the western part of the state.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Colorado Department of Transportation was uncertain when the highway would reopen. CDOT workers were surveying an even larger rock high above the highway that they feared might yet break loose. The agency said if that rock, some 20 feet in diameter, appears unstable, they would try to force it to fall before they reopen the road.

Even when the highway is reopened for limited traffic, it may be many weeks before crews can clear the rest of the highway and repair the damage done by the rockfall.

It’s not that the highway through the canyon is poorly designed. The problem is that the Rocky Mountains are unstable icons. They continue to erode, move and shed large pieces of rock.

Sections of I-70 face perpetual problems near Georgetown and just west of Vail. There is a section of U.S. Highway 50 west of Gunnison that repeatedly shifts, making it impossible to keep it paved. A portion of Colorado Highway 65 near the top of Grand Mesa faces similar difficulties.

In short, maintaining highways in Colorado is neither as easy nor as cheap as in many states. We can only hope that CDOT finds the resources to reopen I-70 through Glenwood Canyon soon.


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