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Getting creative to circumvent the closure of the bridge | Western Colorado

Huddled in the bow of a patrol boat, a group of Gunnison students clung to each other, heads down, to shield their cheeks from the freezing rain and whipping wind typical of any given afternoon on Blue Mesa Reservoir.

Snacks for the trip were provided by the principal of Gunnison High School and National Parks Service officers piled thick windbreaker jackets around the students and their backpacks. A fourth-grade boy, afraid of sailing on a boat, sat quietly munching on a sandwich as crumbs fell across the deck.

The 30-minute drive across choppy waters Thursday was not something the students had prepared for or signed up for — but the only way to get home from school after an inspection of the US Highway 50 bridge over the reservoir earlier that day revealed a 3-inch crack in structural steel.

The unexpected closure of the bridge, which connects Montrose and Gunnison, left people stranded on either side of the closure, including a group of schoolchildren whose only option to join their classmates in Gunnison was to face the roller hoods of Colorado’s largest reservoir to see or go through the bridge. a seven-hour journey to school, one way, over precarious mountain passes.

“It’s very cold in the morning – about 20 degrees, so everyone was wearing their snow suits and a life jacket,” said Kendal Rota, a mother of three who represents about a dozen students who live near Sapinero and Cimarron. , drove home. school on a minibus before the crack was discovered.

On Monday, nine students boarded the Rotas pontoon boat after saying goodbye to their teachers and classmates, knowing it would be their last day of school for the year before completing their final six weeks at home.

Transportation officials opened a detour around the bridge on Monday, allowing residents of Gunnison, Montrose and Hinsdale counties to drive along a rough county road twice a day for “critical local travel.” Still, the two-hour commute behind a pilot car traveling 25 miles per hour would make it difficult to get to school on time, Rota said.

“That’s too much for the little kids,” she said, adding that the parents of two high school students who have to attend school in person are working to find housing so half of their family can be in town during the school week stay with their parents. children and then come home on the weekend.

The Colorado Department of Transportation said crews are assessing and developing repair plans for the bridge and hope Kiewit Infrastructure Co. a company with experience in major infrastructure projects in Colorado. The company worked on temporary repairs to US 34 through Big Thompson Canyon after massive flooding damaged the highway in September 2013 and was hired for the permanent repairs two years later.

On Monday, CDOT rope crews drove along the side of the bridge, sanding off paint to better see welds and possible defects, while crews in a “snooper truck” – an inspection vehicle under the bridge – evaluated the underside of the bridge.

But a timeline for the bridge’s reopening remains unclear, forcing thousands of residents to make sacrifices and find solutions to go to work, make doctor appointments and continue their daily lives in the meantime.

Stormy and Andy Cochran, owners of local outfitter GSO Fishing, began offering free shuttle services for people, pets and prescriptions from one side of the reservoir to the other.

“It wasn’t a decision,” Stormy Cochran said. “We all know what it’s like when your back is against the wall and it’s very difficult and you just don’t know what to do, you don’t know who to turn to. If we can help someone make this easier, then that’s what we want to do.”

Requests for ferry services poured in quickly. One came from a family in Gunnison trying to get their son home after visiting his grandmother in Montrose. With the bridge open, that drive would usually take just over an hour.

Fifteen family members need help crossing the reservoir to attend their parents’ funeral in early May. Another family asked for help shuttling their dog through Blue Mesa. One GSO Fishing guide helped a group of people from Spain cycling to Las Vegas cross the reservoir with their bikes.

“There have been so many different requests and needs – it’s been overwhelming and amazing at the same time,” Cochran said.

“We are still trying to recruit more boats to take everyone across.”

CDOT Director Shoshanna Lew acknowledged the impact of the bridge closure on tourism in the area during a briefing last week.

“We are absolutely aware of the economic significance of this area,” Lew said. “We are primarily focusing on emergency services, healthcare, schools and the kinds of daily needs that will be most acutely faced by local communities, but the economic significance from a tourism perspective is also very central. And we certainly know how important that is as we enter the summer months.”

Gunnison National Park’s Black Canyon and Curecanti National Recreation Area pump millions of dollars into the regional economy each year. While both remain open, the bridge’s closure could have significant financial impacts on the community, said park superintendent Stuart West.

More than 297,000 visitors to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison injected nearly $21 million into the economy, according to a 2022 National Parks Service report. Nearby Curecanti National Recreation Area attracted 992,749 visitors who spent $49.3 million.

An overwhelming majority of visitors contributing to the spend (98.7% at Black Canyon and 88.2% at Curecanti) are not local, West said.

“The NPS is also acutely aware of the potential economic impact of the closure and we will continue to support CDOT’s efforts and encourage park visitation as we meet CDOT’s needs,” he said in an email.

The Blue Mesa Reservoir is the center of the area’s recreation industry. Tourism at the reservoir was hit by the pandemic and low water levels, when many thought the boat ramps were closed, said Cochran, who has organized fishing trips along the reservoir with her husband for the past 18 years. Fishing visitors are likely to continue coming this season, but Cochran is concerned about area stores that rely on road transportation.

“Yes, the bridge is closed and that makes things more difficult,” she said, “but Gunnison and Blue Mesa are not closed.”

Kendal and Joe Rota, owners of the Sapinero Village Campground, tucked above the reservoir, rely on tourists during the busy summer months and fear what the temporary closure will mean for their business.

“I’ve already had people calling in June and July to cancel their reservations, so this is something that’s heavy on my heart,” Kendal Rota said. “Every reservation and every day counts. And for every day lost, I can never make up for it.”

“A subject of concern”

The bridge’s abrupt closure came at the urging of federal highway officials last week after crews discovered the crack during a mandatory inspection of the high-strength steel bridge. The inspection was necessary because of known problems with similarly constructed bridges across the country.

Construction of the bridge project began in April 1961 and the “Middle Bridge” was opened on November 29, 1963, to loud cheers, attended by a large contingent of state and national officials. At the time, it was hailed as the tallest highway bridge in Colorado and the largest single contract project in the history of the Colorado Department of Highways.

The $3.4 million contract covered the costs of the 1,500-foot Middle Bridge, a smaller 1,000-foot bridge to the west and just over six miles of highway construction. The HE Lowdermilk Co. of Englewood was the contractor and the JA Park Machinery Co. from Pueblo was the subcontractor.

They built the bridge using a new “high-strength steel” – T-1 – developed by the American Bridge Division of US Steel in Gary, Indiana. US Steel had first commercialized T-1 in 1952 and began using it in bridges in 1959.

The steel girders in the center bridge were made of T-1, an alloy steel, which was advertised as 25% stronger than carbon steel and was also much lighter. Newspaper files from the Gunnison Pioneer Museum report that the T-1 girders were maneuvered into place using cranes guided by construction operators into a control booth using walkie-talkies to tell workers where to bolt the girders to the swing plates on the bridge piers. No field welding was required as it was thought that the high strength steel bolts were sufficient to hold the girders in place.

In 2022, a Federal Highway Administration report identified an “issue of concern” for bridges built with T-1 steel between 1959 and 1978. It was determined that approximately 224,000 bridges in the U.S. were in need of major work, and 78,000 were in need of replacement.

The 800-foot-long Sherman-Minton Bridge over the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky, and Indiana was closed for five months in 2011 after inspectors discovered cracks in the T-1 steel tires and repairs were made.

The Hernando de Soto Bridge on Interstate 40 over the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee and Arkansas was partially closed in 2021 when fractures were found in T-1 steel girders on the 1,000-foot structure.

The Middle Bridge and the smaller bridge two miles to the west are the only two bridges in Colorado built of T-1 steel.

While traveling by boat saves several hours of travel around the Middle Bridge closure, Cochran described conditions over the weekend as “brutal.”

“The wind in the afternoon on Blue Mesa is no joke and especially in the spring it starts rolling and blowing pretty good in the afternoon so that makes it harder,” she said. “But our guides are seasoned, they’ve been doing it for decades and do a great job getting everyone (there) safely.”

Freelance journalist Nancy Lofholm contributed to this story.