State of the state: Tourism

The “Most Fun Town in America” according to Rand McNally, Glenwood Springs has just about all of the pieces in place. In town, there’s the landmark Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, the largest in the U.S., and above it, the ever-expanding Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, which opened the country’s highest-altitude roller coaster (7,160 feet above sea level) above town this summer. Then you have the Colorado River running through adjacent Glenwood Canyon, complete with whitewater rafting, bike trails, and natural beauty to spare, as well as historic hotels, mom-and-pop motels, and a roster of increasingly good restaurants. And, of course, Doc Holliday’s grave.

But there is one notably missing ingredient in the perfect Colorado-tourist-town formula here: a vibrant downtown. The main problem is the heavy traffic that zips through en route to Aspen. On a peak day, Colorado State Highway 82 can see as many as 40,000 vehicles cross the river and the railroad tracks and cut right through the heart of the central business district, whether the drivers have any intention of stopping or not.

A solution could be on its way. The old Grand Avenue Bridge, with its antiquated 9-foot-wide lanes (the federal standard is 12.5 feet), is slated to get a $58 million replacement and an entirely new footprint. After a year of public outreach, the Colorado Department of Transportation has settled on the preferred alternative: Instead of the state highway looping through several blocks of north Glenwood Springs via 6th Street, the bridge will take off from a new roundabout closer to the current I-70 exit at mile marker 116 on a diagonal route over the river, and intersect with Grand Avenue at the same basic place as the existing bridge south of the river. The old curlicue of a route will be spared the constant pulse of traffic exiting I-70 en route to Aspen, at least until you get downtown.

The old bridge dates to 1952, when it debuted as a two-lane bridge with sidewalks. Jackhammers made rubble of the sidewalks in the late 1960s to make way for another lane; the pedestrian bridge from the north side of the city to downtown came in 1985. Today the bridge has a sufficiency rating of 47.4 on a zero to 100 scale. “It’s like a dashboard indicator,” says Joseph Elsen, project manager with the Colorado Department of Transportation. “When it gets below 50, it means ‘check bridge.’” The rating made it a target for replacement as part of CDOT’s Colorado Bridge Enterprise program, with construction scheduled to begin by the end of 2014.

Elsen, a Glenwood Springs resident since 1983, says the new bridge configuration will make north Glenwood Springs a pedestrian-centric area featuring the hot springs pool and its lodge and spa, as well as Yampah Vapor Caves and historic Hotel Colorado. A redevelopment would enhance the area’s walkability, and connect to either the existing pedestrian bridge to downtown or a new one. “The pedestrian movement is huge here,” Elsen says. “It’s huge for tourists. It’s huge for businesses.”

Critics argue it’s a mistake. “I don’t know why they would reinvent the wheel,” says Larry Welch, general manager of Hotel Colorado. “The bridge that has been up for 60 years seems to work just fine.” The roundabout will be “malfunction junction,” Welch adds.

Others go even further: The bridge itself is not the problem; the problem is that the bridge is the highway. “No one even debates it,” says Jim Hawkins, owner of Fourmile Creek B&B south of town. “Having a major state highway that goes to Aspen as your main street creates a hugely intolerable main street.”

Proponents of a bypass envision it on the west side of the Roaring Fork River and merging with Grand Avenue about a mile south of downtown. The city owns a former railroad grade, but there is a beloved bike path and a fair amount of residential development in the way. “Balance that with getting two-thirds of the useless traffic off Grand Avenue,” says Hawkins. “The railroad went that way for a reason: It’s the easiest way to get through town.”

With a bypass, downtown Glenwood Springs could become more like downtown Durango, where through traffic is diverted from Main Avenue on Camino Del Rio (U.S. 550/160), or Old Town Fort Collins, adds Hawkins. “Downtown Aspen, downtown Carbondale, downtown Basalt are all more interesting than downtown Glenwood. We could realize the dream of a true historic district. Why build a $60 million bridge that doesn’t solve any of the town’s problems?”

Floyd Diemoz of Diemoz Construction was intimately involved in building I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. A bypass, Diemoz says, “was one of the things that city council has never been willing to bite the bullet on and come up with a solution.” Diemoz says the city effectively sold its soul in the 1970s when it allowed residential development along Midland Avenue on the west side of the Roaring Fork River instead of dedicating it to a highway bypass. “The encroachment of houses has made it very difficult,” he says, while labeling the need for a bypass “critical” to the future of the city. “In my view, that traffic will eventually destroy downtown.”

Diemoz says the time for a bypass is now. “When we have opportunities for an alternate route, we throw them away,” he says, citing estimates that downtown Glenwood Springs would see 3,000 or 4,000 cars a day in peak season with a bypass instead of 30,000 to 40,000 without one. Diemoz says the new bridge could be a logistical death knell for an 82 bypass. “It’s going to be very difficult to do anything with the new configuration,” he says.

CDOT’s Elsen says the new bridge could accommodate an eventual connection to a bypass on the river, noting that the city’s geography is inherently troublesome. “There’s the traffic, there are the businesses, there’s the railroad, there’s the river – everywhere you look, there’s something.” He says there is also a need for an in-depth environmental study.

Then there’s the fiscal hurdle. A bypass could cost as much as 10 times the $58 million that’s allocated to the bridge project. Retired local Chevrolet dealer John Haines argues the money will come if city leadership committed to the project. While the $58 million comes from a program that is designated for bridges only, “It would be a tremendous start for a bypass,” Haines says.

Not that there is an obvious consensus on the issue. “You cut off the city – that’s a mistake,” says Hotel Colorado’s Welch of a bypass. “It’s going to shut everybody off, and there’s a lot of great things going on downtown.”

Leslie Bethel of the Downtown Development Authority, an autonomous entity in Glenwood Springs, says a new bridge “presents a lot of opportunities to create a new environment in north Glenwood. It allows for a redevelopment that’s not purely automobile-oriented.” To the south, however, downtown Glenwood Springs would likely continue to see traffic jams at rush hour.

A bypass “has been studied for many years,” Bethel says. “It’s not really economically feasible at this point in time. People are looking for solutions that are implementable.” Bethel says a median with trees and a reconfiguration of the stoplights could alone have a tremendous impact.

“Twenty years ago, I wish different decisions were made, but we are where we are,” Bethel laments, calling bypass proponents a vocal minority. “There are also people who say, ‘Don’t you dare put the highway on my river.’

“I don’t deny (a bypass) is a great idea,” she adds. “But with every great idea there has to be an implementable plan. How are you going to do it?”