Prepare to be detoured traveling Hwy. 50 between Gunnison and Montrose in 2020.
Proposed improvements to a 3.8 mile stretch of the highway in what’s known as the Little Blue Canyon is expected to impact travel for two or three years, according to state and federal transportation officials.
The project — located between mileposts 123 and 126.8 — is approximately 30 miles east of Montrose and approximately 33 miles west of Gunnison.
On Oct. 25, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) held an open house at the ICELab to receive public feedback on the various closure options.
According to FHWA Spokesman Doug Hecox, the project is currently in the preliminary design and environmental clearance phases. While no final decisions have been made, construction is anticipated to begin late spring, or early summer of 2020.
While there has been no determination as to how long the road will be closed, the project could take two to three years to complete, said Hecox.
Given a complete closure of the road, trucks and RVs 40 feet or longer will be detoured to I-70 and U.S. 160. Vehicles less than 40 feet long could take State Highway 92.
During the open house, community members were invited to fill out a survey which offered four options for construction that ranged from low cost and a short duration to high cost and longer duration for construction.
For example, the first option proposes a full road closure for two-to-four months, whereas the other end of the spectrum offers nightly closures only for three seasons at a greater project cost.
The proposed project intends to improve upon safety through rock blasting and excavating to construct retaining walls partnered with stabilizing slopes. There will also be replaced drainage structures, a newly installed guardrail, updated signage and pavement markings.
Hecox indicated the project is divided into two segments. The first segment includes realignment, widening the highway to two, 12-foot travel lanes with two, four-foot wide paved shoulders. Guardrail replacement, an additional rockfall catchment area, new signage and striping are also part of initial construction.
The remaining improvements within the second segment include more realignment, widening the highway to include eight-foot paved shoulders, new signage and striping.
The popular route along Hwy. 50 provides access to various federal lands, including the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area. It’s also a highly used corridor connecting workers, shoppers, sports teams and more from Gunnison to Montrose and surrounding communities, including Grand Junction, Delta and Ridgway.
Yet accident data indicates how dangerous the narrow, curvy roadway is.
From 2000-2017, there have been a total of 209 crashes between mileposts 122 and 126 — amounting to six fatalities, 58 injuries and 145 accidents which resulted only in property damage.
Given the number of crashes, that particular section of highway currently is designated a safety level of four — the worst safety rating a road can receive, according to CDOT.
CDOT also indicated that 65 percent of those crashes occurred under no adverse weather conditions, with the most common factor reported being an “unfamiliarity with the area.”
Additionally, 80 percent of roadway departure crashes occurred where the road is on a curve on a grade or curve on level.
A final decision on the road closures is slated for this spring following a review of public input.
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)