As soon as the Colorado Department of Transportation started construction on the intersection of U.S. highways 550/160 in March, the traveling public lost no time harrumphing.
During the months-long project, a smattering of motorists hurled abuse at roadside workers. Many Durangoans voiced objections to the indignity of traffic – a relative novelty in rural Colorado – while local delivery businesses dispatched drivers to back roads, hoping to avoid the jams.
Then, just when construction was completed, this month’s installation of the sculpture “Arc of History” ignited the ire of residents, whose commutes, lengthened by delays, were now blighted by an artwork in which few perceived immediate aesthetic merit.
But judging from the crowd gathered on a patch of grass adjacent to the intersection for the project’s ribbon-cutting Friday – 50 strong at 9 a.m. – the public is coming around.
The event brought out the big guns in the transportation world, including Kerrie Neet, CDOT regional transportation director, and Scot Cuthbertson, CDOT chief operating officer and deputy executive director, who visited from Denver.
As cars whooshed passed, sometimes making it hard to hear the benedictions to engineering offered up by speakers, CDOT staff members trumpeted the new continuous-flow intersection as a triumph of efficiency, visionary design, prudent spending and safety.
Several cars honked during the festivities, perhaps in support.
The U.S. 550/160 intersection is one of the busiest in Southwest Colorado. In peak times of the year, 36,000 vehicles traverse it daily.
Before the $6.9 million construction project ensued this spring, the intersection was functioning at “Level of Service D,” with westbound left-turning lanes backed up for thousands of feet, CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks said.
State transportation commissioner Sidny Zink told onlookers, “This marks an exciting day for transportation in Colorado.
“Addressing transportation is addressing quality of life,” she said. “I’m a numbers person. There are 36,000 cars a day driving through this intersection in peak season.”
John Carter, division administrator with the Federal Highway Administration, said it was wonderful to be in Durango, where, by his lights, there is little traffic.
He praised the reconstruction of the intersection as a rare instance of government spurning what’s comfortable and embracing innovation.
“It’s easy to keep going back to what you were doing before, especially in government,” he said.
Carter said according to old conceptions of highway engineering, there were only two models for directing congestion: freeways or signalized intersections.
“Actually, there’s a lot in between!” he said, pointing to the novel way the new intersection reduces congestion by allowing vehicles to cross to the left side of the highway in advance of the intersection.
While the mathematical nuances underlying engineers’ traffic-flow models may be lost on locals, Carter said Durango’s continuous-flow intersection is sure to serve as an inspiring beacon for transportation engineers all over the country.
“Traffic engineers will be here from Texas and Michigan on vacation, and say, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” he said.
CDOT Region 5 Traffic and Safety Engineer Mike McVaugh said before construction began, drivers in the left-turn lane to Cortez frequently endured backups of up to 1,100 feet. Residents were menaced by “one bottleneck creating all kinds of delays in town, affecting every other traffic signal in town.”
He said now, the backup is never greater than eight or nine cars.
McVaugh’s microphone went dead just as an enormous waste-management truck screeched and groaned around the intersection.
He spoke louder, singling out the intersection’s new accommodations for bicycles as “based on modern practices” before ceding the spotlight amid applause.
Tommy Humphrey, CDOT Region 5 project engineer, admitted that for the crews, working conditions had occasionally proved difficult.
“Imagine being at your desk and having people driving through at 35 mph,” he said.
But he thanked the traveling public for its patience, saying “99 percent of everybody was great to us.”
Amber Blake, city of Durango multimodal administrator, thanked Zink and others who wrangled money for the project at a time when state money is scarce, despite studies that show Colorado’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling.
“There’s not a lot of money out there. So thank you for getting the money and bringing it to us,” she said.
She said with the new continuous-flow intersection, Durango had entered the big leagues of transportation design.
“You wouldn’t expect this in a town of 16,000 people,” she said.