Sometimes terrible tragedies befall populations that are peculiarly, even poetically, ill-prepared to handle them. Like blizzards in balmy South Carolina, tornadoes in placid Mississippi and crack-smoking mayors in genteel Toronto, Durango residents now face a municipal disaster beyond their experience: traffic.
Since the Colorado Department of Transportation began its $6.1 million construction project at the DoubleTree intersection, many residents report seeing their commutes extended by at least 20 minutes each way. Some have said it took them almost 40 minutes to make the usually brief trip from the light at Santa Rita Park to the DoubleTree intersection – a distance of less than a mile.
Meanwhile, other streets such as College Drive, Main Avenue, Roosa Avenue and Colorado Highway 3 are choked with traffic, as locals try – and fail – to circumvent the construction.
In August 2010, motorists on the Beijing-Tibet expressways became snarled in a 62-mile traffic jam that lasted a bladder-defeating 12 days. Though Durango’s traffic jam is comparatively painless, locals, used to flying down highways, are spiritually struggling with the delays. Indeed, many Durangoans’ obcenity-laden thoughts about the construction project cannot be printed.
Nella Tarcetti said the construction project amounted to a “cluster-(expletive).”
“I have the worst time trying to come in to work and go home,” she said.
At Homeslice Pizza on College Drive, driver Kaylen Fields said the construction is affecting business and frustrating her colleagues, who often are asked to deliver pizzas to hotels near the intersection.
“It’s a pain,” she said. “Just coming through and seeing all the cars lined up, it’s pretty intimidating. It’s going to be crazy for tourists.”
CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks said in a news release that crews will start working night and weekend shifts to ensure that work in the urban area is completed by Memorial Day, in time for tourists’ arrival en masse.
“Despite a few project setbacks – a gas line that was hit, the signal damage by a private vehicle and an additional utility relocate – major work items are progressing very well,” the release said.
In the meantime, families are being affected. At Wagon Wheel Liquors, Nick Moses said construction hasn’t lengthened his bicycle journey to work, but his sister complains it takes her nearly half an hour to traverse the DoubleTree intersection.
“We don’t get a lot of traffic in Durango,” she said.
Even drivers versed in lesser-known local roads are getting caught in gridlock.
“I just try to go every other way. But there’s construction on Main Avenue, too!” Tarcetti said. “And when I take the back way along the river, even that is packed now.”
As she idles in her car, Tarcetti said, “I just listen to music and curse myself.”
Jeff Johnson, owner of San Juan Water Works, said he’s going to hold a meeting with employees Monday to strategize about “avoiding the construction project at all costs.”
As is, construction at the DoubleTree intersection is hurting his bottom line and making his employees late to service appointments.
“We’re based out of the Tech Center, and we’re a company of about 15 people. Every morning, we leave at 8:30. It’s tough because of labor prices. We don’t have 20 extra minutes every morning and every afternoon to sit in vehicles, getting in and out of town,” Johnson said.
Yet he refused to despair, saying he uses the time he spends stranded on the highway to conduct his business affairs.
“I’m an optimistic person. And once they’re done, hopefully we’ll make up the lost time over the next five years,” he said.
Johnson said when traffic at a standstill tests his temper on Camino del Rio, he calms down with music or by observing other drivers’ misery.
“It’s a good time to people-watch,” he said. “I get a kick out of seeing other people get frustrated. It makes me happier; then I feel less frustrated.”
Some Durangoans have fewer coping skills than Johnson.
Project engineer Thomas Humphrey said Durangoans occasionally lose their composure, rolling down their windows to hurl abuse or rudely gesture at flaggers.
“There are a few bad eggs who try to ruin it for everybody,” he said. “But 99 percent are great. They realize that to work on the road, you have to shut down the road.”
Humphrey said it’s been much worse at other construction projects, where inconsolable commuters have thrown trash at flaggers and even accelerated while flaggers crossed the street, apparently attempting to run them over.
There is some question about whether Durango drivers, who are accustomed to racing along the highway at 50 mph, are safe at slower speeds. While stalled in traffic Tuesday afternoon on Camino del Rio, one blonde woman in a white Honda yelled animatedly into her cellphone for 10 minutes. In other cars, drivers openly texted; in one spacious Ford, an older woman unfolded the print edition of The Durango Herald, treating her steering wheel like the kitchen table.
Even at a snail’s pace, there’s considerable risk of an accident. Last week on Camino del Rio, another desperately bored motorist in a green Honda CRV obliviously inched her car forward, trying to read bumper stickers, until the Honda driver finally rear-ended the gray Sierra SLE truck in front of her.
The truck seemed unfazed by the involuntary vehicular kiss, turning right onto College Drive at the first opportunity about 11 minutes later, then speeding up to 25 mph. (Apologies from this reporter to the driver of the truck.)
Though dangerous, local drivers’ excruciating boredom is boon for decal marketing. Thanks to the congestion around the intersection, trucks and cars bearing the logo of Durango Handyman, San Juan Water Works and Cindy Brossman, Eco Broker (799-4882) are gaining new traction as billboards.
“That’s another upside,” Johnson said. “With the traffic we’re getting, it’s good free advertising. I’d rather have one of my trucks sitting in downtown Durango for 20 minutes than on a county road in Bayfield.”
Still, according to CDOT, construction isn’t scheduled to end until mid-August. Assuming it obliges locals to spend an extra 25 minutes in the car twice a day, five days a week, that’s 54 (more) hours for car-based self-improvement.
In that time, commuters can make a lot of headway mastering conversational Mandarin, twice listen to Hilary Mantel’s ingenious if unapproachable Wolf Hall or thrice enjoy “People and Cultures of the World,” a two-disc compilation of lectures by Professor Edward Fischer, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University.
Short of that, Andy White, director of Durango Public Library, suggests drivers subdue their anger and relieve their unbearable malaise by tuning into the dulcet voices on National Public Radio or by playing nonfiction audiobooks.
“But no Stephen King, probably. If you’re experiencing road rage, that’s not good to listen to,” he said.