CDOT: No timetable for U.S. 50 bridge repair between Montrose and Gunnison, current detour options could take hours

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A truck on Hwy. 50 crossing Blue Mesa Reservoir on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Four Gunnison students and a bus driver had to take a boat home Thursday after a crack was found in the bridge spanning the Blue Mesa Reservoir, prompting a safety closure and shutting down U.S. 50.

“Last night we had the National Park Service give us a big boost and transport four of our students and a driver — bus driver parent — across Blue Mesa Reservoir in a park service boat because we couldn't cross the bridge and get those kids home,” Leslie Nichols, superintendent of Gunnison Watershed School District told CPR News on Friday. 

Nichols said it’s unclear if the school boat will have to become a regular option for the district, which faces significant challenges with transportation, construction projects, and high school athletics while the bridge remains closed.

State highway officials said local roads are not yet viable detour options for shortening travel times in the area. 

The Colorado Department of Transportation announced the closure Thursday evening after discovering cracks in steel portions of the bridge, built in 1963. The inspections were prompted because of concerns with bridges elsewhere in the country of similar design. Keith Stefanik, CDOT chief engineer, said during a press conference Friday morning that the problems with these types of bridges range in severity. 

“There's different structure types, there's different issues that have been going on with them. The repairs have ranged from some temporary repairs to some longer, permanent repairs depending on the severity and the structure type, but it's not a one-size-fits-all repair solution for this bridge,” Stefanik said. 

With the bridge closed, CDOT suggests detours to the north (Interstate 70) and the south (U.S. 160). Both options involve driving hundreds of miles and several hours.

A picture of a map that highlights the northern and southern detours for Highway 50 between Montrose and Gunnison.
Colorado Department of Transportation
This map highlights the northern and southern detours for Highway 50 between Montrose and Gunnison. The same detours were used for commercial vehicles during closures for highway work in Little Blue Creek Canyon, just west of the now-closed bridge.

“The northern route is 354 miles and requires approximately 6 hours of travel time. The southern route is 331 miles and requires nearly 7 hours of travel time,” CDOT said. 

While there are county roads that would allow for shorter detours, CDOT is warning they are not yet ready for traffic as winter snowpack has yet to melt. Shoshana Lew, CDOT executive director, said the state is working with county officials to see if the unpaved route can be made viable as a local detour. 

“We are working to support the county to determine whether there's a way to get that local road open with state help just as soon as we can,” Lew said.  “We will be asking for everybody else's patience to prioritize how significant an impact this is for the folks right around the area.” 

A second bridge in the Blue Mesa area is also made of the same steel that prompted concern for the now-closed structure, but Stefanik said no issues were found with that bridge. 

In Gunnison, locals are already scrambling to adjust. 

Kevin Mickelson, the athletic director for Gunnison High School, said he had to call other schools scheduled to travel and play in Gunnison to let them know. 

“I immediately had to call Basalt to let their baseball team know and unfortunately they were already en route,” Mickelson said. 

Miles Van Hee, athletics director at Western Colorado University, said impacts on university athletic travel were immediate. A potential recruit for the women’s basketball team was just a few miles from the bridge when the closure happened. 

“They had to go back to Montrose and stay the night. And, right now, we're just sending them back to Utah and (finding) another time for them to come visit,” Van Hee said. “We're already kind of in a remote area and some people feel like we're tough to get to. Now that happens. It's not a good experience.” 

On Friday morning, Van Hee said he was figuring out the best way to get the Mountaineers track and field team to Grand Junction for the April 26 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference outdoor track and field championships.