Press "Enter" to skip to content

Why would anyone want to four-lane U.S. 50?

Article by Ed Quillen

Transportation – November 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

A FEW YEARS AGO, a billboard just east of Salida told westbound motorists on U.S. 50 that they were only 130 miles from “Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park” near Montrose, with the implication that Montrose was a great place to get a room, buy a meal, and otherwise participate in the tourist economy.

Whoever put up that billboard was jumping the gun — Black Canyon of the Gunnison was then a “National Monument,” rather than a “National Park.”

That’s changing. On September 27, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill creating “Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park” from the national monument and some adjacent federal land. Senate passage is almost a sure thing, and there’s every indication that President Clinton will sign it into law.

What’s the difference between a National Monument and a National Park? A monument can be created by a president from federal land at the stroke of a pen — all he has to do is declare it. A park requires congressional action.

But after designation, both parks and monuments are managed by the National Park Service in the U.S. Department of the Interior, under the same policies.

So in management terms, it doesn’t appear to matter whether a given chunk of public land is a Monument or a Park. But since parks attract more tourists than monuments, there will be effects here, even though the Black Canyon isn’t in Central Colorado.

One possible effect, which George Sibley explains in more detail in his two-part article on Upper Gunnison water conflicts, would be an accelerated change in the water flow through the Black Canyon: it would fluctuate violently with the seasons, rather than the current fairly constant discharge.

This in turn could demolish any Front Range claims to upper Gunnison water, which could make those interests push harder elsewhere: the Closed Basin, perhaps, or east of Pueblo at water now irrigating crops.

But that’s not an immediate issue, and besides, water can get pretty arcane. So let’s look at another current: the flow of traffic along our highways. Will changing Black Canyon from Monument to Park mean more traffic on U.S. 50?

I called Marge Keehfuss, executive director of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce.

Even though the Black Canyon will be essentially the same place after it becomes a Park, she said it will attract more tourists. “From what we’ve been able to gather,” she said, “many vacationers think of a National Monument as something like a memorial at a battlefield, perhaps something to stop at, but not a place to spend much time. They see a National Park as a worthy destination in itself, a place to camp and explore and spend a day or two.”

She said Black Canyon is more like a Park than a Monument in that respect, and I agree — the same holds for Great Sand Dunes, another National Monument that’s more like a Park in terms of being a place to stay for a day or two.

Beyond that, she said, “many atlases and tourist guides list national parks, but not national monuments. So park status makes you more visible. And there are people who try to visit all the national parks in a given area, and not necessarily the national monuments.”

So National Park designation would mean more tourists, and some of them would be likely to stay longer.

“That’s what we’re hoping,” she said, although the increase won’t be substantial at first. Black Canyon currently attracts about 200,000 visitors a year, and “our studies predict a 5% increase during the first two years that it’s a National Park. So I don’t think you’ll see a lot more traffic along Highway 50, at least not right away.”

Keehfuss pointed out that U.S. 50 through Central Colorado is the main route to Montrose for the bulk of Colorado tourists, who come from either Texas or the Midwest.

But it’s not the only road, and the proportion on others appears to be growing, she said. Visitors from the West Coast won’t need to cross Central Colorado at all. Front Range motorists often take I-70 into the mountains, then take off at Glenwood to go over McClure Pass toward the Black Canyon, or continue on the four-lane to Grand Junction before “backtracking” to Montrose.

Consider two things she predicted about the upgrade from National Monument to National Park — that U.S. 50’s traffic will increase, but that U.S. 50 is losing market share to other routes. To some ears, those statements sound like good reasons to four-lane U.S. 50.

The notion surfaces from time to time. When the 1996 merger of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads proposed that the Tennessee Pass line be abandoned, Chaffee County Commissioner Glenn Everett promptly announced that the rail corridor between Parkdale (the west side of the Royal Gorge) and Salida should be used to four-lane that stretch of U.S. 50.

More recently, just this August in fact, the Transportation Committee of Action 22 (a recently formed lobbying group for Central and Southern Colorado, modeled on the Western Slope’s Club 20) set its first priority as four-laning U.S. 50 from the Kansas line to the summit of Monarch Pass, where it leaves Action 22 territory and enters Club 20 territory.

Other things being equal, of course I’d rather drive on a four-lane road than a two-lane. But other things seldom being equal, would this really improve anything hereabouts?

Four-laning U.S. 50 east of Pueblo makes sense. It’s an important farm-to-market road, and an annoying and dangerous one if you’re behind an old silage-hauling five-ton farm truck that can’t go much over 45 mph.

From Pueblo to Cañon City, the highway is already four-laned. On the other end, the work is already underway to make it four lanes from Delta to Grand Junction, and it’s mostly four lanes between Montrose and Delta now. Completing those projects makes sense.

So from here, we’re really looking at the 187 miles between Cañon City and Montrose.

What purpose would four-laning serve? Who would benefit, and who would suffer? In short, what do we want from a highway?

Assume that the idea is to connect Central Colorado to metropolitan Colorado. U.S. 50 connects to Pueblo, with a metro population of about 135,000. U.S. 24 runs to Colorado Springs, with a metro population of about 490,000 at last estimate. U.S. 285 goes to metro Denver and its 2.3 million residents.

Wouldn’t four-laning U.S. 285 provide the most bang for the buck if the idea is to link up to a big city?

And if not Denver, why not Colorado Springs, since the hardest stretch on U.S. 24, up Ute Pass from the city to Woodland Park, has already been four-laned? Extending that over Wilkinson Pass, across South Park, and over Trout Creek Pass would have to be cheaper than blasting a four-lane through Big Horn Canyon.

FOUR-LANING U.S. 50 is the worst option, in terms of costs and benefits, if for some reason we need to be better connected to a metropolitan area. So there must be some other reason to enhance U.S. 50.

Assuming that the four-laning did not stop at the summit of Monarch Pass, but continued to Montrose, then there would be another high-capacity cross-country route.

That would serve national needs, though, rather than local or regional ones. If the nation needs more such capacity, wouldn’t it be cheaper to add lanes to I-80 across Wyoming, or I-40 across New Mexico?

To put this another way, every time the general area of the U.S. 50 corridor has been considered or attempted as a major transcontinental route, it’s come up short. No railroad or major highway ever crossed the Cochetopa Gap south of Monarch Pass, despite the virtues that several surveys observed. Marshall Pass was abandoned by the railroad — it was an economic route in 1880, but not in 1955.

Monarch Pass is high and steep, and in country where a tunnel would be very long and prohibitively expensive. The Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 is 1.7 miles long and saves about 2,200 feet of climbing. To save the same 2,200 feet of elevation on Monarch Pass would require a tunnel about 10 miles long.

The U.S. 50 corridor just won’t work as a major national transportation corridor. There are cheaper and easier ways to get from Chicago to Los Angeles or from Seattle to New Orleans. The long-haul truckers and in-a-hurry cross-country drivers don’t need it.

We can eliminate that as a good reason to four-lane U.S. 50. What’s left?

A four-lane U.S. 50 might convey tourists bound for somewhere else, like the Black Canyon, who might have otherwise taken another route. But people bound for Somewhere Else just want to get through here.

THEY WON’T SPEND MUCH TIME or money here, but they might buy gas or a meal or a motel room. And they’re more likely to buy that from a chain franchise that exports its profits than from a local entrepreneur who re-invests in the community, so there’s not much economic benefit in trying to develop that sort of business.

Further, how much tourism could we expect in the future if we join Generica and look like every place else? Isn’t a certain idiosyncratic distinctiveness part of what attracts tourists now?

A four-lane U.S. 50 might draw more tourists to local attractions, like Monarch Ski & Snowboard Resort in the winter or the dozens of float-trip operators in the summer.

But I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re limited now on account of the highway.

Monarch’s skier numbers have declined a little in recent years, even as U.S. 50 has been improved — if highway conditions were the determining factor, then all that widening in the canyon should be reflected in higher skier numbers.

Float trips are limited by the capacity of the river, as determined by the state parks department, rather than by the capacity of the highway.

So there’s no real case there for four-laning U.S. 50. And I can think of some pretty disgusting things, like outlet malls, that might develop if U.S. 50 were four-laned west of Cañon City.

I’m not in favor of walling people out of this area, but I don’t see any reason why we should go out of our way to make it too easy to visit, either. I think Central Colorado is worth a little trouble to visit. Coming here should be a deliberate act worthy of some effort.

It shouldn’t be a dangerous one. I’m all for more passing lanes in Big Horn Canyon and on Monarch Pass, and for reducing the danger from avalanches and rockslides — that is, some improvements in U.S. 50, while maintaining it as essentially a two-lane road.

But I can’t find a good reason to four-lane it, and I can think of lots of reasons why four-laning would hurt this area more than it would help. People who want to live next to a four-lane through the mountains are welcome to move to Summit County. Those of us who don’t shouldn’t be forced to move just to keep what we have — an area that’s accessible but not too accessible.

Ed Quillen still ventures from Salida to the Black Canyon on occasion, even though there’s not a four-lane highway.