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Town concerned about CDOT plans

Staff Writer

Two seemingly unrelated projects proposed by the Colorado Department of Transportation for U.S. 160 as it passes through Pagosa Springs came up during town planner James Dickhoff’s recent report to town council.

First, the McCabe Creek culvert, which is currently rated by CDOT as the worst culvert in this part of the state, will become the McCabe Creek Bridge by the end of 2016, if everything goes as planned.

Second, the sign currently located on the east end of town, which warns travelers about restrictions or closures on Wolf Creek Pass, will be replaced by a much larger structure that overhangs the highway. In addition, it could be relocated to a site further west and closer to downtown.

McCabe Creek Bridge

Dickhoff has been attending quarterly meetings with representatives from CDOT, and at the most recent meeting, on March 13, CDOT announced it had adjusted the total cost of replacing the McCabe Creek culvert with a bridge. Before, the estimate was $3.8 million, but now it has been increased to $5.9 million.

The reason for the increase in cost is because CDOT has agreed to purchase the downstream property — the old Sears building, which was a Tae Kwon Do studio until a couple years ago, when it became an antique store.

That building was built on top of a culvert that was attached to the McCabe Creek culvert.

The original plan, when it was discovered the culvert under the highway was beginning to fail, was to replace it with a larger culvert, which meant the downstream situation would need to be rectified. A large culvert cannot feed water into a smaller culvert.

Now that the plan is to replace the culvert with a bridge, it has become even more necessary to acquire the downstream property and demolish the building, thereby opening up the original creek bed and restoring it to its natural state.

Keely Whittington, who recently quit as the town’s special project manager, had applied for a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado to be used for purchasing the property so the building could be demolished and the creek bed opened up, but that application was recently rejected.

CDOT had applied some pressure to the town, trying to force it to acquire the property, but once Whittington’s grant application failed, CDOT changed course and agreed to include the downstream property acquisition in its budget for the total project.

CDOT has already begun the process of acquiring easements and property on the upstream side of the highway, including the building that currently houses Making Things New, a relatively new furniture restoration business and art store.

While the good news is that CDOT has come up with the $5.9 million to fully fund the project, Dickhoff reported to town council, but “the maybe-not-so-good news is they are trying to trim the cost of the project.”

One way of trimming costs would be to return to a typical concrete girder system for constructing the bridge span.

The town had originally talked CDOT into using a different construction technique that would allow for the proper head clearance so the town could, at some future date, build a bike path under the highway.

With a traditional girder system, because of limitations caused by the elevation of the creek bed where it crosses under the highway compared to where it empties into the San Juan River, there would only be 7 feet worth of clearance. This may not even be enough for a footpath, let alone a bike path.

“They are struggling to make this construction project happen with this newly allotted five point nine million dollars,” Dickhoff explained. “None of the proposed path would be constructed as part of this project, anyway. All they were trying to do was accommodate for the future installation of this path as part of the bridge structure. It’s still in preliminary stages; we will try to push that to see if they can find an extra two hundred thousand dollars somewhere. It’s possible, but I’m not … Well, we will continue to work with them.”

Another possible cost reduction measure would be to re-route highway traffic along 6th Street to the alley behind the old Sears building and then back to the highway via 5th Street, thereby eliminating the need to complete the project in stages. This would save quite a bit of money.

Dickhoff went on to explain the timeline for the project: preliminary plans by June 2014, final plans and right of way acquisitions within a year after that, and a projected completion date near the end of 2016.

Council member Don Volger asked why there had been such a turn around in attitude with CDOT, especially considering just last year it had put the town under so much pressure to try to acquire the downstream property.

Dickhoff credited more meetings and efforts towards better communication on the part of town staff for created a better working relationship with the staff at CDOT.

“We’ve been fairly relentless in explaining this needs to get done,” Dickhoff admitted. He added that it was refreshing for him to see them come around.

Later in the meeting trustee David Schanzenbaker went back to the McCabe Creek Bridge topic, asking staff to pass on to CDOT how important it is to be able to plan for a future bike path connecting the Riverwalk to the north side of town.

Schanzenbaker also brought up a concern he had received from several business owners who worried a large bridge would create a sense of disconnect between businesses on the east and west side of the creek, discouraging pedestrian traffic from continuing west. He asked staff to mention those concerns to CDOT, as well.

Wolf Creek Pass sign

Then, as Dickhoff gave a handout to each council member, he explained that there is a CDOT reader board just east of where U.S. 160 intersects with U.S. 84. This sign warns travelers of any closures or restrictions on Wolf Creek Pass.

CDOT wants to replace that reader board with a new sign that would hang out over the travel lane and be located across U.S. 160 from the River Center shopping complex, on the south side of the road near the west entrance to the San Juan Motel.

Because of the current location of the reader board, drivers are already out of town before they receive the warning that the pass is closed, meaning they must find a spot to turn around and either head back into town or change directions and head south along U.S. 84. This problem is especially onerous for semi truck drivers and it would be better if they had an earlier warning so they could turn off onto the frontage road or into the Junction Restaurant parking lot, Dickhoff explained.

Dickhoff went on to explain the proposed sign would be 18 feet wide and 9 feet tall, much larger than what currently exists, and would hang out over the roadway with a design similar to what already exists at the chain-up on U.S. 160 area near the base of Wolf Creek Pass.

Dickhoff reassured town council that staff has already asked CDOT to make several modifications to the plans for the sign. These requests include reducing the overall size, applying a coating to the pole so it isn’t just galvanized steel, installing a dimmer switch so the light won’t be too bright at night, and moving the base of the sign further back off the highway so there would be plenty of room for a future sidewalk along the highway.

Still, several council members expressed their concern.

“This is way too much into downtown for my taste,” Schanzenbaker pointed out. “This is just after the bridge; there are several businesses that would be after that sign. If you put a highway sign like that downtown you’re telling people it’s time to start accelerating because they’re leaving town.”

He argued that if the sign were placed just east of the U.S. 84 intersection, truckers would still be able to see it in time to turn south and then make a U-turn in the parking lot of the Archuleta County fair grounds.

“A sign like that doesn’t fit within a downtown space,” Schanzenbaker concluded. “You’re still downtown at that point.”

Councilors Tracy Bunning, Kathie Lattin and Volger each expressed agreement with Schanzenbaker, and the mayor directed staff to continue negotiating with CDOT on the town’s behalf.

When Dickhoff presented his report to the planning commission on March 25, commissioner Cappy White asked, “What about the people merging onto 160 from 84? They would miss that sign.”

“They would miss that sign,” Dickhoff admitted, “but I think they were considering another one by the fairgrounds. I don’t know if it would be the same size or not, though.”

“Well, if they reduced that to just one,” White concluded, “and put it on 160 after 84, maybe they could save enough money to go ahead and raise the bridge.”

Everyone laughed, and then nodded their heads in agreement.

“Man, you are thinking,” Dickhoff concurred. “I’m going to borrow that idea.”

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on April 3, 2014.