Despite efforts from officials in Grand and Gilpin counties, along with a slew of history buffs, a celebrated mountain road remains locked in political impasse.
Boulder County commissioners held a formal hearing last Thursday, Feb. 13, to gather public input on re-opening the historic Rollins Pass road, a former wagon toll road and trans-mountain railroad route. Much of Rollins Pass, known locally as Corona Pass, remains open to high-clearance and four-wheel drive vehicles in the summer. Boulder County, however, blocked and closed an important bottleneck at Needle’s Eye Tunnel in 1990, severing the link between U.S. Highway 40 in Winter Park and State Highway 119 in Gilpin County.
Commissioners in Grand and Gilpin counties have been petitioning Boulder to re-open the road for years, saying it was an important stipulation of the James Peak Wilderness Act. But Boulder County has done little to cooperate, citing issues with potential liability, cost and environmental impact.
“They’ve been stonewalling on this thing for decades, honestly,” said Grand County commissioner Merrit Linke.
Many attending the meeting, including Grand County commissioners Linke and Gary Bumgarner, as well as Gilpin County commissioner Gail Watson, took issue with the costs Boulder County estimates as their share in re-opening the pass.
According to a presentation made at the public meeting, Boulder County estimates it will take $3.24 million to bring their share of the road up to “level 3” status, where two-wheel drive vehicles could travel the pass. Repair and restoration of trestles in the county, engineered and used for the historic railroad, would cost $6.3 million. The county also estimates it will take $610,000 to repair Needles Eye Tunnel and bring it up to safety standards. Liability in the tunnel is a sore issue with Boulder County, after a falling rock injured a traveler in 1990, resulting in an $85,000 lawsuit and the current closure.
On top of those costs, the Boulder County presentation noted the U.S. Forest Service estimates a required environmental review for re-opening the road at $1 million.
In light of Boulder’s current priorities on fixing damaged roads from the September floods on the Front Range, presenters said, the costs of re-opening the road were difficult to justify. But some meeting attendees said the county’s figures are inflated.
“I don’t know how they got these numbers,” Gilpin County commissioner Watson said in an interview. “Gilpin has always done basic maintenance on the road, and Boulder, Gilpin and Grand counties all get federal highway use taxes for the road.”
She estimates Gilpin currently spends around $1,500 to maintain their portion of the road. Grand County budgets about $3,200 each year to do basic maintenance on Corona Pass, and Boulder’s numbers confounded commissioner Linke as well.
“I think it’s way overblown,” he said.
According to Linke, the cost of repairing Boulder’s two trestles could be excluded by using the Boulder Wagon Road, a historic route that’s currently used by hikers and bikers to bypass the closed trestles.
But language in the James Peak Wilderness Act is where necessary costs and repairs become cloudy. The act says should “one or more counties” wish to repair Rollins Pass road, the U.S. Department of Interior will assist with those repairs to allow access for “two-wheel-drive vehicles.” The old wagon road is much steeper than the Rollins Pass railroad route, which was engineered to run at a consistent four percent grade.
Others attending the meeting claimed Boulder County was trying to mislead the public about the trestles. For a detail photograph used to highlight the repair work needed on trestles in Boulder County, the presenters showed a closed bridge actually located along the Grand County portion of the road.
Gilpin and Grand county commissioners further argue that although the James Peak Wilderness Act notes “two-wheel-drive vehicle” accessible repairs, it’s not necessary to go to the lengths Boulder County recommended. Although Rollins Pass might include steep bypasses of the trestles and rocky, rutted areas, minimal grading allowed a variety of vehicles to drive the road’s length in past decades. Some meeting attendees recalled driving the pass in their 11970s coupes before Boulder County permanently closed the Needle’s Eye in 1990.
Although the whopping majority of public commenters at the meeting where in favor of re-opening the pass, Boulder County commissioner Cindy Domenico said in an interview that public opinion is about equally divided on the issue. She said 49 individual speakers commented on re-opening the pass, with only 10 against. However, she said commissioners also received letters and emails on the issue, with 40 against reopening the pass and nine in favor.
Those speaking against re-opening the pass are mostly concerned with potential environmental impacts to the road’s adjoining protected areas – the Indian Peaks wilderness and James Peak wilderness.
James Peak Wilderness remains a touchy subject for Grand County.
“When the (James Peak) Wilderness Act started going into place, Grand County protested. We didn’t want it,” Linke said. “But part of the reason we agreed to it is because this historical corridor was carved out.”
Linke and other commissioners in Grand and Gilpin counties acknowledge Rollins Pass winds through a fragile, high-alpine ecosystem, but said barriers and public education could be used to help protect the area. Keeping the Needle’s Eye area closed blocks county officials from enforcing the entire route and encourages travelers to move off established roads, they argued, which is already causing damage to the area.
“We believe with the road open, there will be a lot more peer monitoring and pressure to stay on the road, and I think people will respect that,” Linke said. “I made a statement in the meeting, that people take care of things that are taken care of. I think that highway’s having problems now because it’s viewed as a road neglected.”
Re-opening the road will undoubtedly bring more traffic to the area, but it will also bring some economic stimulus to Gilpin and Grand Counties, as well as connect Coloradans to an important part of their heritage and an amazing feat of engineering that helped connect the state.
“It’s not just a railroad’s history, but the railroad played part in every portion of our history of people in the West,” Gilpin County commissioner Watson said.
It’s that historic nature Gilpin and Grand county officials hope to preserve, Watson explained.
“We’re not saying this is a road that’ll be an alternative for I-70, we’re not talking about another Trail Ridge Road,” she said. “It won’t be paved, it won’t be widened, it won’t be plowed in the winter … we don’t think we should change it greatly.”
The commissioners from Gilpin and Grand are even willing to assume much of the risk for the Needle’s Eye Tunnel by forming a tunnel authority.
Adding to much of Rollins Pass enthusiasts’ frustration is Boulder County’s ability to impede passage through such a small bottleneck. Of the roughly 25 miles that make up Rollins Pass, only about three pass through Boulder County. Grand and Gilpin counties divide up the rest. When stakeholders finally worked out provisions in the James Peak Wilderness Act so it could be adopted into law in 2002, excluding the Rollins Pass corridor from inclusion, Grand County contributed 16,000 acres to the James Peak Protection area, Gilpin County contributed 9,389 acres to the wilderness area and Clear Creek County contributed 7,469. Only 189 acres in Boulder County went to the wilderness.
“In general, it’s just a very challenging situation,” Watson said. “My sense is that Boulder County commissioners don’t want to re-open it, although they haven’t said that. It’s more what they haven’t done, meetings they haven’t attended and conversations they haven’t wanted to have.”
For the time being, Domenico said she and the other commissioners don’t have any future steps planned regarding the pass.
“I think we need to be very careful about next steps so we take into account the larger picture.” she said. “It was a little different than the typical hearing,” she added, noting the number of attendees from outside Boulder County.
She said the commissioners are taking the public comments into consideration, but reiterated Boulder County remains apprehensive about cost, liability and impact.
Grand and Gilpin commissioners co-authored a letter to Boulder commissioners late last November with possible solutions to those concerns. Linke said they intend to send another letter next week urging Boulder County to take action. If that doesn’t work, he said they’re exploring the idea of having the pass declared as a national monument or finding a way to get the U.S. Forest Service to take ownership of the road.
“We want their cooperation with this,” he said,” but we do feel there’s a way around it, a way to get it open with or without them.”
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334.
“Rollins Pass Road. —If requested by one or more of the Colorado Counties of Grand, Gilpin, and Boulder, the Secretary shall provide technical assistance and otherwise cooperate with respect to repairing the Rollins Pass road in those counties sufficiently to allow two-wheel-drive vehicles to travel between Colorado State Highway 119 and U.S. Highway 40.”
—James Peak Wilderness and Protection Act, 2002 [Public Law 107-216]