An $11.2 million highway improvement project on U.S. Highway 160/491 has begun that will add passing lanes and a left-turn lane along a 2.5-mile stretch north of Towaoc.
Alternating northbound and southbound passing lanes will be added between the Ute Mountain Casino and Road C, and a left-turning lane will be added for southbound drivers accessing Woody’s Convenience Store.
Also, Roads A and B will be realigned to better align with the highway. Also, the Road 21 intersection will be permanently closed. Access will be diverted to Road B.
CDOT officials said the reason the Road 21 intersection will be abandoned is because they don’t want people waiting to turn left onto Road 21 while in the passing lane.
As part of the project, highway shoulders will be widened, guardrails will be installed, and a domestic water line to Towaoc will be upgraded.
Work has started, and will continue until September or October. During construction, expect single-line, alternating traffic, and the speed limit will be reduced to 40mph.
The contract was awarded to Four Corners Materials, and tribally owned Weminuche Construction is a subcontractor.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held Thursday attended by 40 dignitaries from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Colorado Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Transportation, and Four Corners Materials.
Mark Wing, of the Ute Mountain Tribe, gave a blessing and prayer in Ute and English and spread tobacco leaves, a Native American spiritual ritual.
Speakers touted improved the safety the project will bring on a major highway relied by locals, the Ute Mountain Tribe, commercial trucking, and tourists.
From 2009 to 2017, the stretch of highway has seen almost 50 vehicle crashes that caused 22 injuries and one fatality.
Of the crashes, 35 percent were from hitting a fixed object, and 25 percent involved overturned vehicles. Shoulder widening is expected to help reduce those crash scenarios.
Rear-end crashes accounted for 17 percent of the incidents, with many in front of Woody’s Food Store, where a left-turn lane is being added for safer access and egress.
The new passing lanes are expected to reduce head-on and overtaking turns crashes and sideswipes, which accounted for 17 percent of the crashes in the 10-year period.
“Adding passing lanes improves safety in that immediate area, but also changes driving behavior along the overall corridor,” said Josh Liapply, CDOT Chief Engineer.
“Passing Lane Ahead” signs, contribute to improved behavior, he said.
The project is funded by CDOT and a $2 million federal transportation TIGER grant applied for by the Ute Tribe.
“We are so honored and grateful to have our state and federal governments improve a dangerous road that is relied on by our tribe, visitors to the area, and all of the people in Southwest Colorado,” said Ute Mountain Ute vice-chairwoman Colleen Cuthair.