Red Dirt Hill and Highway 40 garner attention from Northwest Transportation Planning Region

In an all too familiar scene, GrandIn an all too familiar scene, Grand County County Sheriff; Sheriff; responds responds to to anan accident on Red Dirt Hill.accident on Red Dirt Hill.
In an all too familiar scene, GrandIn an all too familiar scene, Grand County County Sheriff; Sheriff; responds responds to to anan accident on Red Dirt Hill.accident on Red Dirt Hill.

by Marissa Lorenz
The Northwest Transportation Planning Region (TPR) determined, at their most recent meeting, to make Grand County’s stretch of Highway 40 their next funding priority, including the accident-prone area of Red Dirt Hill near Granby.

The group, a committee of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) comprised of county and municipal representatives from Grand, Jackson, Routt, Moffat, and Rio Blanco counties, is the annual recipient of about $7 million from the State to allocate towards local road and transportation efforts. The region serves, according to 2016 statistics, about 61,000 Colorado residents, and covers 1,663 miles of highway, including US Highways 40 and 34 and State Highways 9, 125, 134, 131 in Grand County.

In recent years, according to Kristen Manguso, the group’s vice-chair and a Grand County commissioner, a bulk of those funds have been focused on improvements to Highway 13 in Rio Blanco County. But CDOT completed the majority of their Highway 13 reconstruction and widening project this year, leaving the question open as to the next priority. And Manguso was prepared to argue for Grand County and Highway 40.

Concern around both road and traffic safety on Grand County’s highways has been of increasing concern, even prompting Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin to post a video plea to Facebook in October of this year.

“Our roads are busier than ever. Our system demands are at an all-time high,” the Sheriff impresses in the video. “We’ve had nine fatalites due to traffic incidents this year. (…) That’s nine people lost forever, due to poor driving behaviors.” He goes on to implore, “This is an epidemic that must be stopped today. And we cannot do it alone.” He encourages the public to contact police about unsafe driving behaviors, by “reaching out to dispatch,” and sending such things as photographs and dashcam footage.

Those nine fatalities, as of October 23, puts Grand County’s 2019 traffic fatalities at three times the fatalities in 2018. And among those nine victims are an elderly couple, 77 and 75 years old, killed in a head-on collision on Red Dirt Hill on a sunny, dry day this past May. A man in his 20s was killed in the same area in 2017. And many in the community will remember the death of Fraser Valley Elementary Principal Reba Ferguson on Red Dirt Hill in 2008. But it was the most recent fatal incident in the area that prompted Grand County Commissioner Rich Cimino to start pushing for safety actions on this particular part of the road.

Many have called for a speed study, concerned that high speeds are a factor on the steep and winding stretch of highway. And Cimino has voiced his support for such a study as recently as a few weeks ago. Manguso indicates that CDOT is already conducting a safety study on the area that will look at striping and signage changes, additional turn lanes, and potential widening that may be helpful and faster to address, with less bureaucracy. Cimino expressed frustration on the lack of action, indicating the CDOT study had been ongoing without suggestions having come back. “I’m not asking for a vote today, but how long does it take?”

Commissioners Manguso Merrit Linke, however, are less interested in dedicating resources to a speed study at this time. “These studies just look at the speed people are actually travelling. It doesn’t look at the safety of the speed. We’re more immediately enthusastic about some striping changes or additional turn lanes that may be quick, easy, and effective,” Manguso explained. “We need safety improvements, not just lower speeds.”

She indicates that the Grand County Road & Bridge is already using creative signage on County roads to try to gain the attention of motorists and spark behavior change, including a sign that
reads “Slow your ** down,” featuring the picture of a donkey.

As it is nearing the end of 2019 and most State and local departments have already determined their budgets for 2020, Manguso cautions residents not to expect a major safety improvement project for Highway 40 in the immediate future. She says we’re more likely to see resources shifted that way in 2021 and beyond. But she is very hopeful that the results will be greater safety for all drivers in Grand County. “We have the backing of the whole TPR. It means we will have the funding and priority to be able to address this issue of great concern.”