Glenwood Canyon project proving its worth
Freeway celebrates 20 years as vital transportation corridor
When Dick Prosence was pursuing an Interstate 70 project in Glenwood Canyon decades ago, he remembers one state highway commissioner quipping that for the proposed price tag, they could pave the highway with silver dollars.
Almost a half-billion dollars later, the interstate through the canyon opened 20 years ago today — sans coins for blacktop.
These days, it’s hard to find critics of the engineering and design feat that was the Glenwood Canyon project. But debate over whether to route the interstate there, and how it should be built, was fierce before the project received final approval in the late 1970s. That’s when Prosence, now an 88-year-old Meeker retiree, was district engineer in northwest Colorado for what then was the Colorado Department of Highways.
“It was a raging battle during ‘76 and ‘77. Every time some of the environmental organizations would come up with some argument why it shouldn’t be done we would think about what we would do to counter those arguments. We did all kinds of innovative things,” Prosence said.
But the costs associated with innovations such as building elevated westbound lanes to minimize impacts on the steep and beautiful canyon drew initial opposition from state highway officials in Denver. The elevated roadway required more than 40 bridges and viaducts.
“They didn’t want to spend that kind of money building a highway,” Prosence said.
He said his answer was that it needed to be built that way or it either would never get built or would have to be built as two lanes with passing lanes, which would have been insufficient to meet transportation needs.
Today, the project is largely lauded as something nearly as marvelous as the setting in which it was built.
“It’s become an attraction on its own,” said Marianne Virgili, president and chief executive officer of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association.
The canyon and its highway have become important not just as a transportation corridor but as a local economic driver, such as for recreation-based companies.
“I think the project drew attention to the beauty of the canyon. People drive through it and go, ‘Wow,’ ” said Ken Murphy, owner of Glenwood Adventure Co.
His company offers raft trips on the Colorado River in the canyon, horseback and all-terrain-vehicle rides in partnership with the owners of the Bair Ranch there, and rental bikes for use on the recreation trail that parallels the highway. The company, which employs more than 40 people in the summer, is just one of many offering rafting, bike rentals and other activities in the canyon.
“It’s all based on recreation and it’s all within the canyon, whether it be on river or on land,” he said.
When highway planners first proposed the canyon as a possible highway route, some local residents feared the canyon would be ruined, along with the fishing, hiking, boating and other opportunities it provided.
But the two-lane road through the canyon at the time was a death trap, with lots of head-on collisions, and sharp, sometimes icy curves that occasionally sent cars into the river.
Meanwhile, I-70 needed to go somewhere, and possible alternatives both north and south of the canyon would have been thousands of feet higher, creating their own problems in terms of routes and vulnerability to snowstorms.
Following congressional passage in 1969 of the National Environmental Policy Act, state highway officials had to write an environmental impact statement for the canyon project, the first for any highway project in Colorado, Prosence said.
“We really didn’t have any writers or any people who were knowledgeable or experienced in that kind of a field. … A lot of that I had to take on myself. There was nobody else to do it,” he said.
The draft EIS had to address 26 impacts, from fisheries to waterways to schools to churches, he said.
Once the draft was released, “then the arguments started,” Prosence said. Even singer John Denver got involved, reportedly trying to toss a coin across the river to demonstrate its narrowness and question its appropriateness for the project.
A citizens advisory committee played a key role in helping assure that highway officials responded to public concerns.
Before retiring in 1982, Prosence hired a young engineer, Ralph Trapani, to manage its construction after the first manager quit to form his own company.
“He did a good job,” Prosence said of Trapani. ” … He had to deal with the political end of it and it was hot and heavy.”
Said Trapani, who still lives in Glenwood Springs, “To me this wasn’t so much about rocks and steel and concrete as it was related to a lot of people getting together.”
From architects to construction and traffic experts to environmentalists and other citizens, “everybody kind of came together,” he said.
People’s thinking evolved as the project moved along, and they even started seeing things from new perspectives. Trapani remembers a meeting when citizen representatives were worried about highway safety and curve considerations, and highway engineers were focused on how to save trees and avoid having to place fill in the river.
As one example of the environmental priorities that eventually were placed on the project, highway officials put a price on trees and other vegetation they wanted to protect from being removed or damaged, fining contractors if harm occurred. Few fines ended up having to be imposed, Trapani said. He remembers a contractor once making suggestions of his own about how more trees could be saved than had been planned.
“To me that’s an important part of the story in terms of the roles that people started taking, that frankly I think were inspired by the beauty of the canyon. Once you’re out there, everyone wants to protect it,” Trapani said.
The project helped provide employment following the oil shale bust of 1982. It also brought a lot of young engineers and other project workers to the area, and Virgili said many ended up becoming part of the fabric of the community. The project also led to contractors launching their own businesses, starting with work on the project such as installation of tiles in tunnels.
The project ultimately won more than 30 awards, among them the Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Today, the canyon project is part of a vital interstate transportation link for trucks and cars, while also providing easier access between western Colorado and the Denver area, to the benefit of tourism-based communities such as Glenwood Springs. Even those who led its construction continue to use it and enjoy it. Prosence said he used to bike and fish in the canyon until not that long ago, and just drove through it on Thursday. Trapani said he might mark today’s anniversary by taking a bike ride in the canyon with his son.
Meanwhile, others continue to speak in awe of the efforts of Prosence, Trapani, citizen volunteers and others who participated in shaping the project and guiding its construction.
“I think they did an amazing job building an interstate through a canyon and keeping its glory all there,” Murphy said.
Virgili said she loves to be in the canyon and see so many forms of transportation, from cars to bikes to rafts, kayakers, in-line skaters and even trains.
“It’s really just a great transportation corridor, just a marvel of engineering,” she said.