Udall to take sinkhole problem to D.C. | SummitDaily.com

Udall to take sinkhole problem to D.C.

EAST VAIL – The sinkhole that closed Interstate 70 last week forcing motorists to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a scenic detour through Minturn and Leadville is, engineers fear, not going to be an isolated incident.

The culvert system that channels water beneath the mountain highway is more than three decades old – about the limit of the life expectancy for the metal and concrete diversions. And with culverts dotting the interstate about every 500 feet, they present a possible sinkhole epidemic if precipitation continues the way it has so far this summer.

Crews have been at work on the current sinkhole for six days, laboring around the clock. Not only have the high water flows and old engineering work led to damage on the highway, but water cresting the banks of creeks and gullies has found new routes downhill, eroding the streets in nearby East Vail. The Colorado Department of Transportation hasn’t yet been able to estimate the cost of repairing the damage, or the project that will follow this summer when engineers inspect each and every culvert through the mountain corridor.

But Rep. Mark Udall hopes to alleviate the worry over who’ll pick up the tab.

The Democratic Congressman’s district includes Summit, Eagle and Clear Creek counties, in addition to his home of Boulder County. Udall visited the sinkhole worksite Saturday, along with CDOT executive director Tom Norton and CDOT engineers.

Describing himself as a visual learner, Udall said he needed to see the problem with his own eyes so that he could better argue the need for increased transportation funding. Udall is seeking about $2.5 billion for improvements on the I-70 corridor from Clear Creek County to Eagle County as part of the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. The bill will outline how federal funds are spent on transportation for the next five years, and Udall said he hopes to convince the top lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that I-70 is a priority.

“I-70 west into Colorado’s mountain communities and resorts is a key interstate commerce corridor that is important for our state’s tourism economy,” Udall said. “And while I-70 and Western Colorado are open for business, the highway needs more than a Band-Aid. The sinkhole that opened up and interrupted traffic for several days is proof that I-70 needs serious upgrades.”

On Friday, Gov. Bill Owens signed an authorization declaring the sinkhole site an emergency, opening the door for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and United States Department of Transportation. By law, the state must pass a spending threshold of $700,000 before federal money begins flowing. The emergency fund is the same that paid for avalanche blasting along I-70 in Clear Creek County in March, after a blizzard closed the interstate.

Meeting that threshold shouldn’t be a problem, CDOT’s Norton said. Norton said the cost of the repairs could total between $2 million and $5 million, but he hesitated to vouch a firm figure.

“To put it simply, what we’re doing is a patch,” Norton said. “The money Congressman Udall is talking about would provide more of a permanent fix.”

But even if Congress does approve the $2.5 billion in aid for I-70, that doesn’t guarantee the money will be spent as Norton and Udall envision it should be. The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, currently under way is examining all of the possible solutions to traffic, wear and tear and environmental concerns from substances such as sand and magnesium chloride used to keep the highway open. The PEIS won’t be complete for another year and will include more opportunities for public comment. The results of the study will determine exactly what improvements will be allowed on I-70 and could include additional lanes, mass transit options or fixed-

guideway transportation.

In the meantime, work continues on the sinkhole. CDOT program engineer Wes Goff said work on the westbound lanes will continue into next week, when crews will switch to the eastbound lanes. Two-lane traffic will continue through the area until the work is finished, but the engineers could not give a specific completion date. Once work on the highway is finished, CDOT will continue repairing drainage and earthworks below the interstate.

“We’ll learn a lot from this,” Goff said. “Then we’ll take what we learn here and apply it when we inspect the rest of the culverts.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.

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