Windy winter storm causes low visibility, shuts down Summit Stage for first time in years |

Windy winter storm causes low visibility, shuts down Summit Stage for first time in years

A Summit Stage bus Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Frisco.
Hugh Carey /

FRISCO — Summit County residents were granted a brief reprieve from severe winter weather conditions following a major storm that dropped well over a foot of snow across the Interstate 70 mountain corridor earlier this month.

And while the snowfall Monday wasn’t quite as bad as the Feb. 7 storm — which largely shut down the area’s major thoroughfares, disturbed ski area operations and required an emergency shelter for stranded motorists — swirling winds did create dangerous whiteout conditions for drivers.

The storm certainly affected the average commuter, with cars spun out along roadways around the county. But even pros were having a tough time making their way through the gale. Many turn to public transportation to get to work or ski areas during Mother Nature’s worst fits, but things were simply too dangerous for bus drivers Monday morning.

“The chief difference (between Monday and the Feb. 7 storm) was the visibility just was not there,” said Geoff Guthrie, transit operations manager with Summit County. “I mean 0.0 foot visibility. Not only was it snowing hard, but the wind was gusting upwards of 40 or 50 mph. When visibility gets that bad, our drivers can’t see. That’s when they made the recommendation, and we suspend operations until we can actually see again.”

At about 8:45 a.m. Monday, Summit County officials sent out an alert warning residents that the Summit Stage bus system was closed due to extreme weather. Soon after, the National Weather Service pushed out an emergency “snow squall warning” in the area, cautioning drivers about icy roads and the possibility of sudden whiteouts.

Guthrie said Summit Stage drivers started their routes as normally scheduled but quickly called in to describe the dangerous conditions. The drivers were asked to do their best to get out of traffic lanes — some pulled off to the side of the road, others found bus stops or parking lots — to shelter in place. While the bus service often deals with severe snow and ice, blustering winds are another story.

“It’s extremely rare that we actually suspend service altogether,” Guthrie said. “It’s been several years since we put out the radio call to our bus drivers telling them to shelter in place and await further instructions. The last time we did it was probably four or five years ago. During these big weather events, we normally do run behind. We’re using the same roads, and everyone else’s traffic problems do slow us down. But scenarios like these are a one or two times in a decade kind of event.”

According to Guthrie, the service typically handles about 7,000 passengers on a day like Monday — a weekday powder day in February.

Breckenridge Free Ride services also briefly shut down because of the weather. Thought the Free Ride sometimes suspends service at nights when it’s dark and snowing, officials said it’s been years since the last daytime stoppage.

“It’s pretty rare for us to suspend daytime operations,” said Jennifer Pullen, assistant public works director for Breckenridge. “Today just happened to be that perfect scenario of wind with no visibility. … It’s been a while (since the last stoppage), especially during the day it’s been several years. … It’s unfortunate we had to do it. But we want to make sure everyone is safe.”

Breckenridge Free Ride was closed for a little under two hours and reopened at about 9:45 a.m. The Summit Stage resumed operations at about 10:15 a.m.

“We just want to thank everyone for their patience with something like this,” Guthrie said. “We understand how something like this can send a ripple affect throughout the county, with people being late to work. But the safety of our passengers and drivers is paramount. I can’t thank our drivers enough for the dedication and professionalism they show behind the wheel in situations like this.”

While conditions were severe enough to shut down public transit here in Summit County, there were minimal impacts to roadways around the state, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. However, officials are asking drivers to consider visibility and road conditions when they get behind the wheel.

“This morning, we had challenging conditions that continued throughout the afternoon,” said Elise Thatcher, a communications manager with CDOT. “Overall along that stretch from Empire Junction to Dotsero, we had blowing snow, low visibility and slick roads.

“We’re very fortunate we didn’t have many road closures. But we’re really trying to get the message out to visitors and residents and encourage them to drive (according to) the conditions. We’re seeing a lot of unsafe driver behavior, with people not driving at the appropriate speeds for visibility. Today was a great example of how high winds can look fine on camera, but if there are gusts blowing, it can be really hard to see and drive.”

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