Buttigieg and the senators spoke about climate change during their visit to Glenwood Canyon

Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shoshana Lew speaks Friday morning about ongoing repairs on Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon after the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire and 2021 mud and debris slides. With her are, left to right, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and US Senators Michael Bennett and John Hickenlooper.
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US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttegieg’s Friday morning visit to Glenwood Canyon has sparked a lot of attention on how lawmakers can help prevent future disasters like the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire – and the debris slides that have followed in 2021.

Buttegieg, joining Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet to highlight Pres. Biden’s bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill said the country must use this substantial new funding package to build again and, in turn, become less reliant on emergency response.

“That’s why the focus is on things like escape routes, ways to shore up and prevent damage to critical infrastructure that’s in that area,” he said. “And make sure people like the CDOT team have the assets and resources they need to respond very quickly to anything that might happen.”

The 32,631 acres consumed by the Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020 and subsequent catastrophic debris slides in 2021 caused significant damage to Interstate 70. This prompted Colorado Governor Jared Polis to initially request at least $11.6 million in federal aid for repairs.

Persistent waves of debris flows on Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon also prevented or delayed traffic throughout the summer and fall of 2021. Multiple times motorists were forced to use two alternate routes – Cottonwood Pass to the south or Rabbit Ears Pass to the north.

Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shoshana Lew said the state is currently evaluating potential options for using emergency services on Cottonwood Pass.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg answers questions during a news conference in Glenwood Canyon on Friday morning about President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure act. Buttigieg answered questions about ongoing repairs to I-70 through Glenwood Canyon after the Grizzly Creek fire in 2020 and the mud and debris slides in 2021.
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“The State Transportation Commission has actually just approved initial funding for investigative work to determine if the right-of-way needs for tight curves,” she said. “We will likely seek additional federal support, likely from some of the new resilience programs to help with this effort.”

So far, Lew said pending expenditures for Glenwood Canyon repairs are about $24 million. The Federal Highway Emergency Relief Program, through the US Department of Transportation, covers these substantial costs.

“President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill that he worked so hard to get passed is going to have somewhere in Colorado $6 billion for roads and bridges and basic infrastructure that we’re trying to get for a few generations,” says Hickenlooper.

Friday’s visit by federal and congressional leaders also sparked discussions about global warming and its effect on natural disasters.

Biden’s infrastructure bill included the Hickenlooper Charging Act, an effort to make driving electric vehicles more affordable for users.

U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper speaks with Colorado Department of Transportation officials about ongoing repairs to I-70 through Glenwood Canyon after the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire and 2021 mud and debris slides .
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Buttigieg said transportation alone is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, and encouraging rural drivers in Colorado in particular could play an important role in finding solutions to not only mitigate global warming, but also to save money by motorists who stray from the gas pump.

“Even with transportation, we’re working on aviation and shipping, which will be harder to decarbonize than surface transportation,” Buttigieg said. “But if you add all those pieces together, we can make it happen. And the truth is that we have no alternative, because if we fail to do so, the consequences are simply unacceptable.

Bennet would echo Buttigieg’s sentiment toward alternatives to fossil fuels. He said, however, that those initial steps taken to reduce emissions are currently “far from where we need to go”.

“Fires that happen here don’t happen by accident, mudslides don’t happen by accident, floods don’t happen by accident,” he said. “It’s the result of climate change, and it’s significantly affecting our economy.”

Journalist Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or [email protected]

Teresa H. Sadler