Lengthy Road Closures Have Taken A Toll on Ouray’s Economy
OURAY – Motorists and local business owners will get a reprieve over the upcoming holiday weekend from the rockfall mitigation work on U.S. 550 Red Mountain Pass that has severely limited travel between Ouray and Silverton since late April.
US 550 over Red Mountain Pass will be open for five full days to single-lane, alternating traffic from Thursday, May 22, at 6:30 p.m. through Wednesday morning, May 28, at 8:30 a.m., the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Region 5 Transportation Director Kerry Neet and Program Engineer Ed Archuleta told the Ouray City Council on Monday night.
Starting at 8:30 a.m. on May 28, the work schedule and accompanying daily closures will begin again until the current phase of the project is completed – on or before June 13. After that, the highway should open to unhindered two-lane traffic for the remainder of the summer season, Archuleta said.
A final, third phase of the project will likely take place in the fall, closing the highway again temporarily.
“We want to make sure council and the mayor know we are committed to getting this done as quick as possible,” Archuleta said. “We want to keep the safety of the traveling public in mind, but we understand the impact [of the closure] to the community, and we are committed to getting it done as quickly and safely as possible.”
The ordeal began on Sunday evening, Jan. 12 when it started “raining rocks” at mile marker 90 along the Ruby Walls section of US 550/ Red Mountain Pass, two miles south of Ouray. Crews cleared the highway and reopened it to travel that night, but as a steady stream of rubble continued to pour down on the roadway the next day, CDOT officials made the decision to close the highway again. It would remain fully closed for the next two and a half weeks – the longest closure due to rockfall that anyone can remember.
CDOT geologists discovered that the slide had initiated from a near-vertical rock slope 900 feet above mile marker 90, when a slab of rock the size of a football field broke free from the surrounding rock and fractured into smaller pieces of rock rubble. After the initial release, thousands of tons of material remained perched on the cliff face, endangering motorists below.
CDOT contract workers took advantage of unusually mild, clear weather in the second half of January to conduct preliminary scaling work and install metal mesh material over the debris field to stabilize it and discourage any more material from sliding down. The initial mitigation effort concluded with the installation of a heavy-duty rockfall fence along a portion of the highway in the danger zone, with traffic signals on either end to enforce alternating one-way traffic flow through the rockfall zone. This set-up was in effect from February through April.
Phase 2 of the mitigation project began on April 29. Since then, daily road closures have been back in effect from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with an hour-long scheduled opening at midday.
As Archuleta described it, this phase has basically consisted of “high altitude gardening” on a massive and extreme scale, with workers ascending to the rock fall zone with rakes and shovels to push or dislodge rocks and boulders off of the cliff. Additionally, last Friday a helicopter delivered more rolls of metal mesh material that were installed over debris fields last weekend, just north of the mesh that was put down last winter.
Next Wednesday crews will begin installing a secondary, mid-slope fence that is 5 feet tall and 350 feet long, about half-way up the cliff between the highway and the rockfall area. “We hope to have it done by the 13th of June, but it could be earlier,” Archuleta said.
Crews will remove the fence along the roadway after the mid-slope fence is installed, enabling two-way travel with no signal control for the remainder of the summer.
The highway along the rockfall zone has been pretty bruised and beaten up through the whole ordeal, and will be patched prior to opening the roadway back to two lanes, Archuleta said. Additionally, CDOT will install some extension gauges to monitor the slope for further failure.
The third and (hopefully) final phase of the rockfall mitigation project will include further repairs to the surface of the roadway, and replacement of a section of rockery crib wall, Archuleta said. “The performance of the mid-slope fence will help us determine the scope of our final project, and we expect that work to be underway in late summer into early fall,” he added.
Additional rockfall mitigation may still be required in the fall. Rockfall experts will climb the slope “every couple weeks,” throughout the summer, Archuleta said, “and see what kind of rock the fence is gathering. I gotta tell ya, there is a lot of rock up there. It’s Red Mountain, and I think you guys understand.”
DECLARATION OF ECONOMIC DISASTER AND EMERGENCY
There is no doubt that the highway closures have cast an economic pall over the two communities that anchor Red Mountain Pass – so much so that Ouray Mayor Pam Larson sent a declaration of economic disaster and emergency for the City of Ouray to Gov. Hickenlooper last week.
The declaration greased the wheels of a process that was already in motion to make Small Business Loans available to local business owners that were most heavily impacted by the road closures. Gov. Hickenlooper immediately took action, and by last Wednesday, the Small Business Association Office of Disaster Assistance had made an official disaster declaration for economic damage received by small businesses in Ouray County, as well as the neighboring counties of Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, San Juan and San Miguel, as a result of the rockfall incident and ensuing highway closures.
SBA loans may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact, and will be available for a full year from the time of the initial rockfall incident.
A handful of local businesses have already applied for loans.
“It’s nice to have these pieces in place – not just for what has already happened, but just in case anything else does happen,” Ouray Chamber Resort Association Executive Director Kat Papenbrock said. “If anyone continues to see long-term effects, they basically have until February of 2015 to apply for aid. Having those pieces in place also opens the door to other legislative and disaster grant pieces, should we need them.”
LEANING TOWARD SUMMER
On a sunny afternoon in Ouray on Tuesday this week, Main Street was busy, the dandelions and apple trees were in full bloom, the grass in Fellin Park was a lush, emerald carpet, and the sound of screaming kids filled the air at the Ouray Hot Springs Pool.
In other words, someone had turned on the switch for summer, and the economic disaster that had only recently been proclaimed already seemed to have skulked back into the shadows.
Although many individual business owners continue to have compelling stories to tell about how their bottom line has been negatively impacted by the current and previous highway closures, the City of Ouray’s first quarter sales tax and lodging and occupation tax revenue numbers do not conclusively reflect this.
LOT revenues were down in January by 0.8 percent, up in February by 5.2 percent, and down in March (the most recent month for which there is currently data) by 2.5 percent.
Sales tax figures were up by 17 percent, 10 percent and 2 percent for the months of January, February and March, respectively, and down 5 percent in April.
And at the Ouray Visitors Center, “Our numbers are up,” Papenbrock said. “We have had the best first quarter on record. A lot of people are asking about the travel impacts of the highway closure, but we are able to convince them to stay and eat and shop. We hope that will mitigate some of the down side.”
The most recent round of road closures have come at a time when business owners are typically coming out of a lean shoulder season, and investing in their businesses in preparation for a (hopefully) busy summer. “I think that was what was so hard,” Papenbrock said. “It took a low cash flow time and made it worse, but at the same time everyone I’ve talked to has said, “Thank God it wasn’t in July.”
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