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Who will fix the culvert?

Staff Writer

The McCabe Creek Culvert, which crosses beneath U.S. 160 near Sixth Street in downtown Pagosa Springs, is rated as the worst culvert in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s southwest region. However, it may not get replaced until after it caves in and closes the highway.

Pagosa Springs streets superintendent Chris Gallegos joined special projects manager Keely Whittington to brief town council at a June 20 meeting.

“Something that Chris can help clarify,” Whittington began, “is a question that came up repeatedly during the recent town council work session. What is a catastrophic failure of the culvert? This isn’t going to be a sink hole that swallows fifteen cars over the Fourth of July weekend.”

“The culvert is rusting on the bottom side,” Gallegos explained. “The walls and the top of the culvert are still in decent to good shape. If we start getting failure on the road itself, on the driving portion of it, it’s going to start showing low spots on the road, areas that might need patching at first, before we see a sink hole.

“I’ve walked through that culvert — there are actually two culverts — and one is a little worse than the other. The culverts themselves are structurally still round; they’re not collapsing at this point. I foresee that before we start getting any kind of total failure we are going to see an oval shape on the culvert as it starts bearing towards the center and we will see an increase in the deterioration of the bottom of the culvert. In any case, I think the state highway department will be able to see ahead of time the safety concern in the road failure.”

Pedestrians and motorists travelling west along U.S. 160 through Pagosa Springs will notice that CDOT recently placed orange cones and concrete barricades out into the right lane of the road to keep people off of the sidewalk between Car Quest and the Making Things New store.

Over the years, water from McCabe Creek has eroded the ground around the mouth of the culvert to the point that the concrete sidewalk is completely unsupported. Daylight can be seen between the gutter and the asphalt.

“I’ve got several concerns,” council member Tracy Bunning said. “We are at the point of making a decision after only three months of being aware of where the project stands. There are a lot of other options we could look into that might be less expensive, that might eliminate some of the concerns and problems, but we haven’t had time to look at those.”

CDOT has already earmarked over $3 million for replacing the McCabe Creek culvert, but has threatened to take that money away and use it on other projects throughout the state if the town doesn’t participate financially in settling the issue of the downstream property.

The major holdup for the project is a culvert that runs underneath a downstream building. Known locally as the old Sears building, which currently houses an antiques store, the structure was built in the 1960s on top of a culvert connected to the highway culvert. CDOT wants to replace the failing highway culvert with a larger, better designed culvert, but that cannot be done until the downstream culvert is either upgraded to a larger size or the buildings are demolished and the creek bed re-opened.

The root of the problem is that somebody needs to negotiate with the downstream property owner in order to purchase the land and demolish the building. CDOT claims it is the town’s responsibility to do so, while the town claims it is not.

“The council has been extremely diligent over the last two or three years,” Bunning continued, “with making sure they were able to stay within their income, within their budget, and looking at some of these cost projections, if we take on some of these large projects like this, I see us jeopardizing that position, and I’m definitely not in favor of doing that.”

“I think the state is trying to pull us into something,” Councilor Kathie Lattin added, “that’s really not our responsibility. As community leaders we do have a responsibility for the safety of everybody on that road, but I don’t think this is something we should have to take on because it is not something they are forecasting will happen immediately. We should allow the state and the private landowner to figure out what their best options are.”

“I think at this time it is purely hypothetical,” Mayor Ross Aragon agreed, “because we don’t know what kind of legal responsibility we have. I don’t see how we can be asked to fund something like this when we don’t know if it is our responsibility or not. Our legal firm tells us that it is not.”

“I’d like to see the state engage in the downstream issue,” council member Darrel Cotton said. “If they are responsible for the upstream acquisition, it doesn’t make any sense that they’re not responsible for the downstream as well. They have the ultimate responsibility. If it fails it’s going to cost them more to fix it than it would to do the project now.”

In the end, the council voted to not approve Resolution 2013-18, thereby instructing Whittington to not apply for this particular CDOT RAMP (Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships) grant, which would have cost the town anywhere from $282,000 to $500,000 worth of matching funds, depending on which specific grants were pursued.

“We’ll have to see how it pans out,” Town Planner James Dickhoff later explained to the planning commission at its Tuesday night meeting. “With that determination, we probably forfeited the (money) CDOT had set aside, so it opens up a challenge for staff to be able to work with CDOT in the future.”

While the town has decided to not get involved with the McCabe Creek culvert project, it has applied for another grant from CDOT’s RAMP funding program. This grant would be used to make improvements to the U.S. 160 corridor as it passes through Pagosa Springs, and is a combination of five key improvement projects along the highway, including:

• Eighth Street sidewalk connections to the new lighted intersection pedestrian crossing, providing sidewalk extensions south along the east side of Eighth Street, east along the south side of U.S. 160, and north along both sides of Eighth Street.

• Drainage facilities along the south side of U.S. 160 between Second and Third Streets, including two or three catch basins to convey storm drainage via underground culvert to the Hermosa Street alley and the San Juan River.

• Pedestrian crossing facilities at the intersection of Piedra Road and U.S. 160, including 400 lineal feet of sidewalks leading up to the intersection along both sides of Piedra and 350 lineal feet along the east side of Harman Park Drive.

• Sidewalk extensions from the intersection of U.S. 160 and North and South Pagosa Boulevards to at least Navajo Trail Drive and Country Center Drive on one side of the highway and the Pagosa Mountain Hospital on the other.

• Street lighting and 8,200 lineal feet of sidewalk improvements along both sides of U.S. 160 through the downtown area, similar to what was finished last year in front of Kip’s and Farrago’s.

After the meeting, when asked if he had any concerns about CDOT denying the town’s other grant applications in retaliation for the town deciding not to participate in the McCabe Creek culvert project, Dickhoff answered, “No, I don’t get that feeling. I know this may appear to be a contentious issue, but we really only decided to not participate in this RAMP funding grant process, which was a new grant process for CDOT. It was really rough for everybody. CDOT only announced the program four months ago, and we only had a couple of weeks to figure out how to submit an application, so it was a very rushed process and we didn’t necessarily agree with the way this grant was structured.”

Dickhoff went on to claim that the town did not necessarily reject the idea of participating in the McCabe Creek culvert project; officials just rejected this particular grant opportunity.

However, Town Manager David Mitchem explained the town’s official legal position. “State statutes give a mixed picture regarding water conveyances under highways. If it is storm drainage, those conveyances are the responsibility of the town. If it is a natural stream, it is Town Attorney Bob Cole’s opinion that those water conveyances are not the town’s responsibility. They would be the responsibility of CDOT.

“CDOT is saying this is a complicated drainage system in that it flows under the highway and then flows under buildings beyond the highway. Because of this complicated nature they want the town to participate in the financing of a solution, and I appreciate that. They have been really great partners in other ventures throughout the community. In this particular request on their part, the town council has taken the position that it is CDOT’s responsibility, not the town’s.”

A request for a copy of Cole’s legal brief was denied on the grounds that it was protected by attorney/client privilege. Similarly, Nancy Shanks, the public relations representative for CDOT, failed to respond to a SUN staff request for an official statement of that organization’s position.

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on June 27, 2013.