Durangos ridiculed Bridge to No place suddenly has clear road ahead

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A decade ago, it was snickered at as “the Bridge to Nowhere.” It was a concrete overpass curling over a highway in a then mostly undeveloped section of Durango. The span had a cow pasture on one side and dead-ended in a scrubby hillside on the other. It truly did not go anywhere.

Now, that ridiculed overpass is finally getting somewhere. It is going to link to a nearly $100 million highway project that is underway to revamp the traffic-clogged and accident-prone intersection of U.S. 550 and 160 in southern Durango. It is the largest highway project ever built in that region of southwest Colorado.

In a smack-down to the “Bridge to Nowhere” moniker, highway officials are now referring to the entire connection project as “Bridging to the Future.” That lofty title moves the needle beyond long-frustrated efforts by highway officials to shepherd this project through decades of controversy and bureaucratic speed bumps and obstacles.

“We’ve turned this from a rags to a riches project,” said Mike McVaugh, the Colorado Department of Transportation regional director who is overseeing Bridging to the Future.

The history of the project dates to 1998, when Durango was a wisp of its current self. The housing developments, businesses and regional health care hub that now crowd around Highway 160 in southeast Durango were still mostly pipe dreams. But highway planners knew what was coming. They started sketching in potential transportation changes for that part of Durango. They completed Environmental Impact Studies on the two problematic intersecting highways with an eye toward future traffic demands.  

Highway 550 is s hair-raising roadway infamous for its sheer drop-offs on Red Mountain Pass between Durango and Ouray. Less well known is one of its more accident-prone sections after it passes through Durango. There, it makes a steep, crooked climb up Farmington Hill, a section of road with a propensity for icing up and turning treacherous in winter.

Highway 160 crosses 550 at a traffic light at the bottom of Farmington Hill. Highway 160 cuts across southern Colorado in service to the heavy volume of commerce that flows through the Four Corners — the only transportation region in Colorado with no interstate highway.

The intersection of Highways 550 and 160 handles 34,000 vehicles per day. More than 1,700 freight trucks travel through daily on a section of roadway that has an above-average number of crashes. More than half of them are animal/vehicle collisions.

Those pressures have convinced residents of a rapidly growing town that a once-maligned highway project is now a bright idea.

“It’s all a good thing at this point. I am glad that it is finally happening,” said John Gilliland, who owns a gravel pit near the Bridge to Nowhere.

A decade ago, Gilliland was one of many skeptics. The idea of spending big on highway makeovers in what was essentially undeveloped lands was not popular with the public. It sparked legal battles with landowners. And it was not high among funding priorities for the state. The work that included the Bridge to Nowhere kept getting beaten out on a Colorado Transportation Commission funding wish list by the four other highway districts in Colorado.

“I remember the days when, if you were a CDOT employee and you were on that project, you were shunned,” McVaugh said.

Steve Parker, a former Transportation Commission member, says it has “taken some tenacity,” but the $100 million Bridging to the Future highway project will help smooth the flow of commerce in southwest Colorado, the only transportation region in the state with no interstate highway access. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Steve Parker, a retired Durango banker who spent 12 years as a member of the state Transportation Commission working on moving the frustrating project along, framed it in another way: “This has taken some tenacity.” 

The payoff for Parker’s tenacity and McVaugh’s former unpopularity is an area crawling with activity today. Giant earth movers are chomping into a ridge north of Farmington Hill. The first of two large bridges is beginning to take shape along Highway 160. Fencing is going up. Utilities and irrigation pipes and ditches are being relocated. The new route of a four-lane roadway is already beginning to show in an outline along a mesa’s rim.

Before it is over in the spring of 2023, the project will include two more bridges, a roundabout, 4 miles of new four-lane highway, an 800-foot retaining wall, 8 miles of wildlife fencing, 32 animal crossings — and that long-awaited connection to the Bridge to Nowhere.

It will come together to bring quicker access to Mercy Regional Medical Center and to a Southern Ute Tribe housing project. It will mean an easier commute for workers headed to and from Bayfield, 19 miles east of Durango, and Farmington, N.M., 50 miles to the south. Truckers will have an easier time hauling groceries and other supplies from Denver and Albuquerque. The traffic signal at the bottom of Farmington Hill that has acted like a logjam will be eliminated, and that section of highway will become a free-flowing route rather than an intersection.

A black eye for transportation planning

The Bridge to Nowhere became a black eye of a highway project and earned its nickname in 2009. The 53-foot-long, three-lane span over Highway 160 near the then-new hospital caught the attention of drivers because it butted into an undeveloped hillside.

Highway officials admitted they could see why people would think it was a waste because of how out of place the huge steel girders and concrete span looked in a mostly rural area.

The bridge was compared to its namesake — a planned $320 million span in Ketchikan, Alaska, that was designed to link to an island with a population of 50. The idea for that far north Bridge to Nowhere was eventually scrapped. The Durango Bridge to Nowhere moved forward – very slowly.

The public angst over the bridge was heightened when it was revealed that CDOT did not have the right to connect the bridge to anything. Chris Webb, the absentee landowner on the top of the hill, did not want a highway project cutting into his historic 600-acre ranch. He filed a lawsuit alleging that CDOT had acted fraudulently in condemning a portion of his property. Webb also pointed out overlooked problems in the initial environmental studies; the planned route would have a gas well in the center lane. It was also going to disrupt numerous archeological sites.

Legal wrangling dragged on and effectively stopped the project for years.

By this time, millions had been spent on assessments, and studies had piled up many thousands of pages. About $47 million had been spent on the dead-end bridge as well as the two other bridges, several on and off ramps and a roundabout that were part of a project called the Grandview Exchange. That exchange was designed to eventually link to the current project.

That final portion of the project sat in limbo while most of the major regional transportation players changed. That turned out to be a boon for the project because the new regional managers, with help from the Southern Ute Tribe, forged a better relationship with Webb.

Working with a new set of project officials, Webb agreed to sell enough land to CDOT to allow a roadway to go forward on the edge of his ranch.

The Bridge to Nowhere finally had a path forward.

CDOT is saving money using design/build techniques

The connecting project now is underway with a cost- and time-saving method of construction called design/build. It basically means that some details of a project are designed as construction happens. CDOT creates a general design of a project before work begins, but allows the contractor to change details like exactly where a pilon will be placed or how earth can be moved from one part of a project to another.

Design/build first came into use with CDOT in 2006 when the gigantic “T-Rex” construction project on Interstate 25 in Denver got underway. It was also used with the Grand Avenue bridge replacement in Glenwood Springs. McVaugh said design/build is now part of most large highway projects.

A time-lapse video by Colorado Mountain College shows construction of the Grand Avenue Bridge in Glenwood Springs. Project managers say the design/build technique saved time and money on the massive, disruptive infrastructure project that was completed in 2017. (Colorado Mountain College)

On the Durango project, design/build cost-saving projections have allowed for four-laning an additional 3.3 miles of Highway 550 south of Farmington Hill. They are also lessening traffic impacts during construction because a temporary bridge is being built so trucks can haul dirt over the highway rather than having to cross it.

Transportation officials are high on this method of building a large project. Gilliland, who has an ear to the ground with construction companies through his gravel business, said he fears there will be problems and delays because regional project managers do not have enough experience with this style of construction.

Even though he is pro highway project now, Gilliland also takes issue with the cost to taxpayers.

The lion’s share of funding for the project — $54.4 million – is coming from the State of Colorado Transportation Commission. Nearly $30 million was awarded by CDOT.  The U.S. Department of Transportation pitched in another $12.3 million in a Fastlane grant that went to LaPlata County in partnership with CDOT. The Southern Ute Tribe’s Growth Fund, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, LaPlata County and the City of Durango anted up the rest.

McVaugh said the nearly $100 million to be spent on the Bridging to the Future project is estimated to take care of traffic pressures in that growing part of Durango until around 2035.

Parker gets emotional when he remembers all his “unfounded optimism” for this difficult project over the years – and when he now looks at the churning of dirt and the driving of pilons after so many delays, missteps and ridicule centered on a bridge going nowhere.

“If you believe in something, you are just happy to see it happen,” he said. “This gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”

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