OURAY COUNTY – Two highway projects in Ouray County are among the 44 partnership projects receiving $580 million for improving Colorado’s transportation system as part of the Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships program.
The program, part of a new budgeting and planning approach aimed at accelerating the completion of transportation projects across Colorado, was implemented in December of last year with grant applications submitted in July.
In Ouray, RAMP has earmarked $1.6 million toward the City of Ouray’s $2 million Sky Rocket box culvert project on US Highway 550.
In Ridgway, RAMP has offered to contribute $10.5 million toward a $13.3 million project, adding a center turn lane to Highway 62 as well as partnering with the Town of Ridgway to implement downtown infrastructure improvements. But there’s a hitch: Town voters must agree to raise $2 million in matching funds.
SKY ROCKET PROJECT TAMES PUBLIC WORKS’ PROBLEM CHILD
Ouray Public Works Director Dennis Erickson, who co-wrote the City of Ouray’s Sky Rocket RAMP grant application, with City Administrator Patrick Rondinelli, couldn’t be more pleased with the news of the grant award, which came last Thursday, via an e-mail announcement from Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Don Hunt.
“We got a piece of the pie!” Erickson said the next day, overseeing city crews digging gravel out of the Skyrocket catchment basin.
Skyrocket Creek originates 3,800 feet above Ouray, and plummets steeply and at times violently to the valley floor. Like many of the creeks that slice across Ouray, it is prone to flash-flooding. The Colorado Geological Survey has documented that Skyrocket Creek has one of the highest measured rates of runoff per square mile in Colorado.
Its natural course is to the south of what is now the Ouray Vista Subdivision, toward the Ouray Hot Springs Pool. A 400-foot notch blasted in bedrock in 1929, paired with a newly reinforced dam structure, work together to divert the natural flow of Skyrocket Creek away from the pool and into a lower diversion channel and catchment basin adjacent to U.S. 550 at approximately mile marker 94. A decades-old corrugated pipe culvert with a makeshift screen channels water underneath Highway 550 and directs it toward the Uncompahgre River on the other side.
Sky Rocket Creek provides an infinite source of gravel to the City of Ouray, and along with it, the never-ending chore of maintaining the catchment basin. This chore escalates into crisis mode when a flash-flood or spring runoff event suddenly dumps thousands of tons of material and debris into the catchment basin, clogging the aging, six-foot diameter culvert.
Several times over the past 20 years, such events have blocked traffic flow on Highway 550 completely, sending large boulders, viscous mud flow, high volumes of water and debris across the highway and shutting it down until CDOT and City of Ouray Public Works crews can remove the material. This causes major traffic problems for the transportation corridor and potentially isolates the City of Ouray during a catastrophic flood event.
Rondinelli described the problem in a letter of support for the successful RAMP grant application. “Highway 550 is not only the primary transportation route to and from Ouray, it is also the primary evacuation route for city residents and visitors out of our community to the north,” he wrote. “If a significant event occurs and damages or destroys this route, public safety is ominously compromised.”
The RAMP-funded project will replace the deteriorating Sky Rocket culvert under Highway 550 with a concrete box culvert – eight feet high by 20 feet wide – built to industry standards and robust enough to handle debris from Sky Rocket drainage during a significant runoff event.
“It’s gonna be a great fix,” Erickson said. “This is critical to Ouray.”
The project is scheduled to break ground in 2016, with preliminary scoping, planning and engineering to take place over the coming year. All plans for design, construction and management of the project will be approved and engineered through CDOT staff.
The City of Ouray is providing $400,000 in cash for the project out of its Flumes Fund, and will leave the planning, construction and management of the project to CDOT. City officials will have a seat at the table during the design phase, to assure pedestrian walks, wider shoulders and guardrails are installed to make it safer for all forms of transportation.
When construction gets underway, there will be some short-term detours, but the components of the box culvert can be prefabricated, and set into place with a crane “pretty quickly,” Erickson said.
RAMP GRANT COULD RESURRECT RIDGWAY’S STREETSCAPE PROJECT
While Ouray’s RAMP-funded project is (or will soon be) literally set in concrete, the fate of the Ridgway CDOT project is still unclear, given the fact that the Highway 62 RAMP grant award was predicated upon the Town of Ridgway successfully raising $2 million in matching funds through a bond question on the November ballot. Ridgway Town Council moved to strike that question last month, in response to local business owners’ protest of the proposed property tax hike.
Reflecting on the division that this so-called “Streetscape” ballot question created in the community, Ridgway Mayor John Clark observed, “It’s ironic that CDOT still thinks we have a worthy project.”
CDOT officials have given Ridgway more time to raise the necessary matching funds. “We have to commit by January to having another ballot question next spring, to keep us on the list,” Clark said. After that, a majority of voters “have to say yes,” for the project to happen.
If the town agrees to re-float the bond question in the spring, it may come back in a version that is more palatable to voters.
The Streetscape question in the upcoming election would have asked voters to approve a $2.7 million bond, because the town was concurrently pursuing two different funding opportunities for its Streetscape plan. The first was the CDOT partnership, utilizing RAMP funds, for which the town would need to raise $2 million in matching funds through a 20-year, $2 million municipal bond to be repaid by a property tax increase. In an alternate funding scenario, the town was applying for $500,000 in grant funds from the Department of Local Affairs Energy Impact Funds for downtown business district improvements. This second option would have required voter approval of a 20-year, $2.7 million municipal bond. And so town officials hedged their bets by asking for a $2.7 million municipal bond (the amount needed if the DOLA grant came through, but the RAMP grant did not), promising that if the RAMP grant was awarded, they would issue only a $2 million bond.
“When we put together the ballot question, we didn’t know whether we would get the RAMP money,” Clark explained.
Now that CDOT funding is secured, the bond can be scaled back to $2 million – or even less. “If we could get some DOLA money, too, and add capital improvement sales tax money, we could make the bond question less than $1.5 million,” Clark said. “It’s all a little up in the air.”
But one thing is certain. “It is essentially a $13 million project, for which we would have to come up with $2 million in matching funds,” Clark said.
Highway 62 improvements covered by the RAMP grant extend from Laura Street to the Highway 550 intersection. They include a three-lane highway all the way through town, including two drive lanes and a center turn lane; two bike lanes extending from the Highway 550 intersection to Laura St.; concrete crosswalk intersections on Highway 62 at: Railroad, Lena, Cora, and Laura Streets; curb and gutter work; sidewalk on both sides of Highway 62, from the bridge to Laura St. and on one side of Highway 62 from Laura Street to Amelia Street; surface and subsurface drainage improvements; landscaping and irrigation, including raised planters, from Railroad Street to Laura Street; decorative lighting and amenities (benches, trash, recycling, etc.); and a connecting sidewalk under the Highway 62 bridge to existing sidewalk on the north side of the bridge.
The project would encompass a variety of infrastructure improvements in the town’s historic business district, as well.
“We are not calling it Streetscape anymore,” Clark said. “We are calling it ‘Downtown Infrastructure Improvements.’”
Town officials are planning to have one or more public meetings in November about whether or how to move forward with the local share of funding for the project. “We will have CDOT officials come and explain from their standpoint the whole thing, and give the public an opportunity to weigh in,” Clark said.
Meetings will be conducted by an outside facilitator at a neutral location, such as the Ridgway Elementary School, and comments and questions most likely will be taken in written form.
Dates for the meeting(s) will be released shortly. As Clark said: “Stay tuned.”
For more information about the RAMP grant awards across Colorado, visit coloradodot.info/programs/RAMP.