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Another 7 Month Closure Of Highway 34 Has Business Owners Worried

Grace Hood

In September 2013 torrential rain caused a swollen Big Thompson River to tear away -- and in some places completely destroy -- parts of U.S. Highway 34.

Temporary repairs reopened the road by December, but permanent repairs didn’t start until October 2016. 

Since then, hundreds of tons of rock have been blasted from the canyon walls, prompting the closure of a three mile stretch of the canyon. The road will reopen in late May 2017.

Originally, officials planned to keep Highway 34 open while work continued, constructing a new flyover bridge, extending passing and pull out lanes and, in some places, moving the road entirely.

“We were looking at 30 to 45 minute delays going up the canyon. Four summers that we would have impacted,” said Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Jared Feil.

Credit KUNC
A screen cap of KUNC's home page during the 2013 floods.

CDOT is proposing a different solution. Rather than keeping the canyon open with traffic delays, CDOT wants to close Big Thompson Canyon in October 2017 for another seven months -- just like they did the previous year.  The new plan would shave two years off the construction timeline.

“The last thing we wanted to do again was close the canyon. That’s just brutal,” Feil said. “But when you look at that extensive of an impact you have to look at every option -- we realized we can get all that work into one winter with very minor delays during this summer and next summer, and then we’re done. We’re done December 2018.”

Impact on business owners

John Nicholas, president and CEO of the Estes Park Economic Development Corporation, said business owners have mixed opinions.

“Some business owners are excited at the possibility of shaving two years off the construction, but if you have a business in the Big Thompson Canyon or west Loveland, this is a much greater burden,” he said.

January 2017 was tough for Estes Park business owners. Sales taxes were down, and the retail sector saw an almost 18 percent drop in business. That follows December’s 20 percent drop -- despite Highway 34 reopening around Christmas.

“The hotels and restaurants seem to be doing better than retail. Retail seems to be suffering more. We think that might be because we successfully promoted more winter visitation in general, but a lot of the day trippers from places like Fort Collins and Loveland are more conscious of the road closure and it’s more of a big deal to them,” Nicholas said. “It really depends on your customer as to how it’s impacted you. I think the businesses who are losing money attribute it to the road closure.”

Feil said CDOT is trying to work with business owners and residents, but their decision will take into account the impacts to Lyons and other areas along Highway 36, the alternate route to Estes Park when the Big Thompson Canyon is closed.

Credit CDOT
According to CDOT, another seven month closure of U.S. Highway 34 would shave two years off the construction timeline.

“Thirty to 45 minute [delays] -- most people will [be] taking Highway 36,” Feil said. “Over the summer that now makes 36 completely shut down. It’s bumper to bumper and so we have to look at -- not only are we impacting one road, we're impacting two. And what that’s going to mean to a lot of different people.”      

Throughout this process affected businesses can apply for grants to help ease the burden. There is still money left, but Nicholas says they need to act now before the money is reallocated to other flood recovery projects.

The decision on whether or not to close the Big Thompson Canyon in October 2017 hasn’t been made yet. CDOT will host three meetings this week for the hundreds of canyon residents who would be impacted, as well as those in Estes Park and Loveland.

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