Highway realignment connecting Frisco and Breckenridge narrowly beats out winter, capping $23 million project
The Iron Springs realignment project was officially completed on Tuesday afternoon, wrapping up a project more than a decade in the making and ending a down-to-the-wire push by road crews to finish work before winter.
The nearly $23 million project eliminated a two-lane section of Highway 9 skirting along the shore of Lake Dillon and replaced it with a four-lane stretch that travels up the adjacent hillside. The old section of highway will now become part of the Summit County recreation path.
Road crews had to race to finish the project ahead of the season’s first heavy snows, which could have shut down construction early and saddled the contractor, SEMA Construction, with hefty fines.
“SEMA did a lot of hard work over the last month,” said Jason Laabs of Cirque Civil, which oversaw the project. “They had their second biggest pay estimate in October, so they applied a lot of resources to the project to get to the point that we’re at today.”
Paving finished last Friday, but crews still have to place some final touches on the road. Laabs said he expects the orange cones that have lined the project all season to be gone by the end of the week.
During a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday afternoon, local state and federal officials praised the spirit of cooperation that guided the project through a minefield of potential veto players.
“Every one of the partners could’ve been a roadblock to this process. … Anyone could’ve said, ‘No, this doesn’t work,’” Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said. “But we had this can-do attitude every step of the way and creativity with all of our partners.”
Some big lifting came from the Summit County government, Breckenridge and Frisco, which all pooled more than $300,000 each in matching funds for the Colorado Department of Transportation. When the project was hit with cost overruns, Vail Resorts pitched in too. Construction began in 2016.
CDOT currently has more than $10 billion in unfunded priorities statewide and almost no money for major road improvements. Iron Springs was made possible by a cost-sharing arrangement that had local governments kick in around 20 percent of the cost.
“There is this backlog of funding, and Colorado and CDOT are taking a very conservative approach to how we spend money,” CDOT interim director Mike Lewis said. “This was an opportunity to do more with what was already on the books, and I think the other interesting innovation was getting more people with stake in the game.”
Lewis said that the success of Iron Springs could be a model for getting important transportation projects done in the face of intractable budget gaps at CDOT.
“If we can work together in that spirit of partnership, there’s virtually nothing that we can’t do,” he said. “This is the kind of example of what we can do when we put our minds to it.”
Colorado’s population has been growing by roughly 100,000 annually in recent years, and many of those people travel Summit County’s roads.
“Who would’ve thought back in the day that we’d have a highway of this magnitude between Frisco and Breckenridge?” Eric Mamula, Breckenridge’s mayor, said at the ceremony. “I never thought we would be this busy to where we need this, but now, truly we need this.”
A major goal of Iron Springs was to respond to that demand and eliminate the two-lane choke point around “Leslie’s Curve,” named for the former owner of Frisco’s Log Cabin Café, Les McMacken, who totaled his Cadillac rounding the bend in the 1960s.
“Safety is a problem we’ve got in Colorado right now. The numbers have gone in the wrong direction,” said John Cater of the Federal Highway Administration.
Cater, administrator of the agency’s Colorado Division, cited the state’s sobering traffic fatality numbers, which have gone up to 609 last year from 488 in 2014.
“I think we need to find ways to improve safety,” he said. “One way is to do projects like this.”
When Iron Springs was first conceived in 2004, the plan was to widen the area around the curve by blasting out more of the hillside. Back then, the route that was ultimately used would’ve cut through a heavily forested area, making it less appealing.
“But the pine beetles came,” Noll explained at the ribbon-cutting. “It wasn’t virgin forest anymore after it was cut and treated.”
The plan was eventually changed to adjust to the new reality. That allowed the project to shave an extra half-mile off the route and move the bike path to the lakeshore.
Noll said that the new bike path, which roughly swapped places with Highway 9, was the most popular aspect of the project. It will now run along the shores of Lake Dillon, offering a breathtaking view for cyclists.
“The biggest part of the public happiness with this project is this bike path, which has made a spectacular addition to the county,” he said. “Almost all of the public comments we got were about the bike path.”
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