Work on the final phase to connect the “Bridge to Nowhere” to U.S. Highway 550 atop Farmington Hill is scheduled to begin in early August, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“This is probably the biggest project we’ll ever see here,” said CDOT spokeswoman Lisa Schwantes.
For years, efforts have been made to bypass the steep Farmington Hill, which state officials have said since the early 1990s will not withstand the region’s expected growth in population and traffic.
The project, however, has sustained numerous setbacks, from issues over land negotiations, legal battles with property owners resulting in the use of eminent domain and even the discovery of a vast network of Native American ruins.
But finally, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. Even La Plata Electric Association crews are moving their power lines out of the way for the new highway.
“Some of their utility poles and lines exist where the new alignment will be,” Schwantes said. “So it needs to be moved.”
This past winter, CDOT awarded a $98.6 million contract to two Denver-based companies to design and build the realignment of Highway 550, which would direct southbound traffic to the existing interchange near Grandview.
Work was supposed to commence this spring, Schwantes said, but various factors, including the novel coronavirus pandemic, caused the process to be delayed to the summer.
As of this week, designs for the project were being finalized, Schwantes said. The hope, she said, is to start construction Aug. 1, though that date is subject to change over the next few weeks.
“We have a lot of folks working on this one project to move it forward,” she said. “Things are changing daily.”
Initial construction will be out of view of the public, Schwantes said, with crews focusing on building a service road off Highway 550 on top of Farmington Hill to access the bulk of the work area.
Other early work will include building bridges over gulches to preserve wildlife habitat, constructing a new retaining wall and various projects to mitigate landslides.
“A lot of the early work will be done offline of Highway 550 where the new alignment will be,” Schwantes said. “So we’re not expecting any significant traffic impacts.”
The public should start seeing traffic impacts in spring 2021, she said, as CDOT crews start widening the road, realigning the highway and reconstructing the intersection at the top of Farmington Hill.
If all goes according to plan, CDOT expects completion of the project in spring 2023.
“We’re really excited and confident about the plan moving forward to get this open and built,” Schwantes said.
Sidney Zink, a commissioner on the CDOT board who represents Southwest Colorado, said securing funding for the project has been a constant challenge, but one that was ultimately accomplished through tireless work.
In November 2017, the state of Colorado’s Transportation Commission approved the biggest chunk of funding, $54.4 million. Not long after, through CDOT’s Region 5 project funding, $29.9 million was thrown into the project.
Local agencies then threw in – the Southern Ute Indian Tribe pledged $500,000, and the city of Durango and La Plata County each pledged $250,000. A FASTLANE federal grant added $12.3 million for the project. And the Colorado Department of Local Affairs awarded a $1 million grant.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Zink said. “To know that people have been making fun of the bridges ... that especially, makes it feel like the biggest one I’ve accomplished in my eight years (on the board).”
Zink was referring to the $47 million Grandview interchange, a network of four bridges, six retaining walls, on- and off-ramps and a roundabout that were built in 2011 with the intention of connecting to Highway 550 from the south.
Locals dubbed it the “Bridge to Nowhere” because it received little use. The bridges have in recent years been in use to access Three Springs subdivision, which includes Mercy Regional Medical Center.
Steve Parker, a former CDOT commissioner and Durango resident who has been involved with the interchange since the early 2000s, challenged the public to come up with a new name in light of the impending completion of the project.
The “Bridge to Nowhere” name, for example, is used on Google Maps, and even has a 4.2 star review from 5 reviewers.
“There were two to three times where I thought we had a deal, but it didn’t happen for one reason or another,” Parker said. “But now we’re ready to go, and it’s going to make that intersection so much safer.”
Zink said a groundbreaking ceremony that was planned for the project was canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. She said an event will be planned once it’s safe to do so.