As Communities Tally Impacts of US 550 Road Closure, the Rocks Keep Falling
WESTERN SAN JUANS – Motorists traveling over Red Mountain Pass during the afternoon of Feb. 16 were pelted with rocks as they drove past the Ruby Walls rockfall mitigation area, about two miles south of Ouray, where a massive rock slide shut down the highway for over two-and-a-half weeks in January.
Sunday’s dislodged rocks were small enough to push through holes in the newly-installed metal-mesh fencing, said Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nancy Shanks. Nobody was injured, but at least one vehicle sustained a small dent.
The rockfall was no surprise to CDOT engineers, who designed the mitigation project to protect motorists from larger rocks plummeting down from 900 feet above the road. “They fully understand and expect that some smaller rocks will make it through,” Shanks said. But the rockfall fence does serve the purpose of slowing down the velocity of the smaller rocks that punch through it. “It’s like hail, instead of bullets,” Shanks said. “That is what the netting is there to do – to slow down and catch as much [rockfall] as possible.”
The rockfall fence is not a permanent fix for the Ruby Walls problem, Shanks said. “It’s not over,” and CDOT engineers are working to devise “a longterm solution,” coming this spring.
CDOT Maintenance Area Supervisor Vance Kelso estimated that 4,000 square yards of material remain perched on the cliffs above the highway in the rockfall release area, tucked beneath almost 40 metal mesh “blankets” bolted to the cliffs in the massive mitigation project last month.
“Some of it will come down, but this is about the safest option that we’ve got right now,” Kelso said. “There shouldn’t be any new rockfall activity. Mainly everything up there is designed to take the energy out of the rocks hitting the highway.”
Kelso anticipates that the rockfall debris field, mostly frozen in place by recent snows, will now begin shifting as temperatures warm in coming weeks, initiating a new round of freeze-thaw cycles.
“That will show us a lot of what [the mitigated area] is going to do,” he said.
THE ROCKFALL’S ECONOMIC AFTERMATH
A week and a half after US 550/ Red Mountain Pass reopened 24/7 to intermittent single-lane traffic, Ouray and Silverton business owners are still digging out from under the aftermath of the rockfall, and recounting the economic impacts of the highway closure.
Silverton Mountain co-owner Jen Brill reported a drastic drop in skier numbers during the highway closure. “People went two weeks without paychecks,” she said, adding that the ski area is still feeling the impacts of the closure due to lost reservations. “A lot of people called to book reservations, and said they would call back when the road opens, but then maybe they went somewhere else,” she said.
The closure also underscored the demographics of Silverton Mountain’s clientele. “Very little of our business comes from the south,” she observed. “Mostly, we are pulling from the Front Range.”
Despite a drop in business as steep and extreme its ski runs, Silverton Mountain managed to keep its workers busy by sending its top guides over the mountain to help with CDOT’s rockfall mitigation project, where they earned good wages as temporary contractors. That opened up the way for some of Silverton Mountain’s more junior guides to take clients out on the mountain.
“Because our more senior guides were working on the highway project, I was able to keep people employed that wouldn’t have been working otherwise,” Brill said.
As soon as the partial opening went into effect on Jan. 31, Brill said, business started bouncing back. “The partial opening changed things right away,” she said.
Silverton’s downtown business owners were also hard hit. Pete Maisel, who owns the Bent Elbow Restaurant and Bed & Breakfast on Blair Street, saw a lot of cancellations. “People flying into Montrose couldn’t get over here, but they could go to Telluride,” he explained. “It’s a simple equation.”
Mark and Darlene Watson at the Silverton Grocery said their business was down by about 20 percent. Just down the road at San Juan Services, a gas station and convenience store right on Highway 550 at the end of town, employee Pete Sampson reported a “massive impact” equating to a 70-80 percent decrease in business because of the road closure. “This is town-wide, Sampson said. “We are a good gauge of what is coming into town. It was pretty massive.”
Paul Zimmerman, who owns the Pickle Barrel Restaurant on Greene Street, reflected that what was really happening in Silverton in January was a “perfect storm” of no fresh snow, plus the road closure.
“If there had been snow, people would have driven around,” he speculated. As it was, he estimated business at the Pickle Barrel was down by 30-40 percent. “It wasn’t fun.”
Add to that the inconvenience of having to go the long way around for his daughter’s orthodontist appointments in Montrose, and it added up to “a royal pain in the butt,” he said.
With fresh snow, an open highway, and the economic boost that stampeded through town with last weekend’s Silverton Skijoring event, things in Silverton are once again looking up, with the highway closure quickly fading into a bad memory.
“Skijoring is our winter Fourth of July,” Zimmerman said. “It’s our busiest lunch of the year.”
The impact of the highway closure left more scattered bruises on Ouray’s economy.
While the Ouray Hot Springs Pool reported a 20 percent decline in visitors, the Ouray Ice Park remained as busy as ever, as did many Ouray lodging establishment that rely on ice-climbing clientele.
Anecdotally, there were at least some hotel cancellations, but things stayed consistently busy at the Comfort Inn, said co-owner Betty Wolfe.
“A lot of people were complaining about [the lack of] walk-in traffic, but it was a good month for us,” said Wolfe. “Most of our customers come from the north, and those from the south find other ways to come around.”
Wolfe’s numbers were also bolstered by the fact that the highway workers assigned to the rockfall mitigation project were staying at her hotel, occupying two to four of her 33 rooms for the duration of month-long project.
The rockfall incident also provided an economic boost for Ouray’s Rigging for Rescue business, contracted by CDOT to provide up to eight guides at a time to help with high-angle rigging and safety coordination for the rockfall mitigation project.
Main Street businesses and restaurants appear to have borne the brunt of the impact of the highway closure.
“There are some people hurting more than others,” said OCRA board president Tamara Gulde, who owns two gift shops on Main Street in Ouray. “We had some ‘zero days,’” (retail lingo for a day when there were no sales at all). “In winter, every dollar counts. That’s true for everyone here. We are very blessed this didn’t happen in July.”
Lane Coe, who works at Mouse’s Chocolates, didn’t see any “zero days,” but he reported that during the highway closure, there were entire shifts when he saw less than 10 customers – slow as molasses for the typically bustling Main Street chocolatier. “The people who did come were mostly locals,” he observed.
“Business was down,” agreed Artisan Bakery owner Trevor Latta during a quiet lunch hour last Thursday.
In the winter, the Artisan Bakery usually fills up with backcountry enthusiasts who are on their way up to Red Mountain Pass for a day of backcountry skiing or snowboarding. Those customers had to look elsewhere for their backcountry fix while the highway closure was in effect.
Other eateries in town including the Outlaw, Ouray Brewery and Backstreet Bistro all reported a drop in business, from “a little” to “a lot”, although as one restauranteur observed, it is normal for things to get slow in January after the Ice Festival.
While Ouray’s guiding industry’s ice-climbing programs in Ouray Ice Park were “minimally impacted” by the road closure, ski and avalanche programs that typically use terrain on Red Mountain Pass were diverted through Durango, causing guides to drive the long way from Ouray to Durango to connect with clients. “It reminds you of just how huge our mountain range is,” San Juan Mountain Guides co-owner Nate Disser said, of that four-and-a-half-hour drive.
But all in all, his business pulled through the closure unscathed. “It was mostly just inconvenient and a huge logistical hassle,” he said. “We didn’t turn away clientele and guests,” but he speculated, there was likely a ripple effect in the community, as a result of SGMG’s clientele eating, shopping and sleeping in Durango instead of Ouray.
That ripple effect extended all the way over Red Mountain Pass. San Juan Backcountry is one of two local guiding services that holds a guiding concession for popular ice climbing routes in Eureka near Silverton. For the duration of the road closure, “We stopped taking clients to Silverton for ice climbing,” Disser said. “I am sure that affected Silverton businesses as well. It’s all part of the picture for sure.”
The highway closure also took a unique toll on Star Mine Operations employees who commute from Silverton and for consultants who come from Durango to work at the Revenue-Virginius Mine. “Our employees and the company understand that the rockslide was something that couldn't be controlled,” said SMO Operations Manager Rory Williams. “We are glad and appreciative that the road crews keep Red Mountain Pass safe and work hard to keep it open.”
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