An aerial view of the Webb Ranch, with Farmington Hill in the foreground and “The Bridge to Nowhere” in the background. As the proposed road connection between Highway 550 and 160 heads up the hill from the bridge and across the mesa, it would curve east around a gas well and then back toward the west to avoid the historic sale barn, requiring 1.6 million cubic yards of excavation work at an estimated cost of $78 million./Courtesy photo












On the road again

CDOT moves on to next phase of Highway 160 development
by Tracy Chamberlin

Looking upon the “The Bridge to Nowhere,” many local residents find themselves wondering what direction this city is headed. And when the bridge starts heading somewhere, they could get the answer.

With construction complete on the infamous bridge, the Colorado Department of Transportation has turned its shovel toward the next phase of the Highway 160 project, linking the bridge with Highway 550 on Farmington Hill, a connection that leads across the Webb Ranch and Florida Mesa.
Chris Webb and his sister, Martha Coutinho, first visited Colorado in the 1950s. After their mother divorced in the 1960s, she brought the kids back to the area and bought the ranch property, which covers almost 600 acres on the mesa.

Back then, it was a working ranch with an already prominent reputation. Livestock was bought and sold in the barn where Webb stacked hay. He said he remembers working the farm as a child and growing up in this area, where he attended Miller Middle and Durango High schools.

The city is not the same community it was when they first arrived, Webb said, but it’s still unique. The project along Highway 550 could be the “little domino” that changes it all. “That might be the straw,” he added. “That’s what I’m worried about.”

For Webb, the property is a critical part of Durango. It’s a symbol of the city’s past, and he had hoped it would be a symbol of its future by turning it into a place for ranching education and an example of sustainable living.

CDOT said it, too, in preparing for the future. With increasing traffic and population in the area around Grandview, the need exists to upgrade the Highway 160 corridor from Durango to Bayfield.
The hisotric sale barn on the Webb Ranch

“Our community has and will continue to grow,” said Kerrie Neet, CDOT Region 5 Transportation Director.

“Just drive through the intersections at Dominguez Drive (Wal-Mart) or through the US 550/US 160 junction near the Double Tree during peak periods and see the increase in traffic.”

The Highway 160 improvement project was originally approved in 2006 after an environmental impact statement and subsequent Record of Decision by the Federal Highway Administration, or FHWA.

But as the concrete was being poured on “The Bridge to Nowhere” two things came to light that would alter the design of the connection to 550: a gas well along the approved route across the mesa and the4  historical status of the Webb Ranch.

It was determined a gas well sat along the pre-approved route and several buildings on the Webb property had been designated for the historical registry, including the sale barn where Webb once stacked hay.

This meant CDOT had to adjust and reissue its environmental impact statement and triggered the creation of a supplemental EIS, which is available for viewing on CDOT’s web site through Aug. 27.

As the SEIS was being put together, Webb offered up four additional routes for CDOT to consider. These would essentially keep Highway 550 closer to its current path. However, the road would be wider, the curve not as sharp and the gradient less severe.

These are the Alternative R options examined in the SEIS, bringing the total to seven. The Eastern Realignment Alternative, the Revised F Modified Alternative and the Revised G Modified Alternative round out the options for connecting Highway 160 and 550.

Instead of parting the seas, these alternatives would part the land and move anywhere from 810,000 to 3.1 million cubic yards of dirt at a total construction cost of $73 to $102 million.

The preferred alternative, the one CDOT believes is the best option, is the Revised G Modified Alternative. It meets the project’s “purpose and need,” which is like the sum of the equation used to determine viability and impact.

“The preferred alternative is the one that is best from all aspects, including safety, environment, constructibility, historic ranches, private and commercial properties and cost,” Neet said.

As it heads up the hill and across the mesa, the preferred alternative would curve east around the gas well and then back toward the west to avoid the historic sale barn. It would require 1.6 million cubic yards of excavation work.

The 550 connection is one of three additional improvements envisioned for the Highway 160 project. An overpass is planned for Three Springs Boulevard and Elmore’s Corner, and the road will be widened along the 16.2-mile stretch of Highway 160 heading into Bayfield.

Webb, who now lives in Detroit, and is the co-director for The Engineering Society of Detroit Institute, said he would like CDOT to take another look at its decision because it could change the face of Durango, creating the kind of urban sprawl he sees in Detroit. “I find when people come together … creative and wonderful things can happen,” he said.

According to Nancy Shanks, CDOT Public Relations Manager for Region 5, the Record of Decision for the SEIS will follow the Aug. 27 viewing deadline, and although that final decision is up to the Federal Highway Administration, it has been collaborating with CDOT throughout the process.

The next step would be to procure funding. Shanks said CDOT has funding for the design, but not the construction of the mesa connection. The entire project is currently estimated at $78 million.

In order for the shovels to actually begin digging, CDOT needs to negotiate with the Webbs.

CDOT does not have to wait for the Webbs to decide to sell. Through condemnation, or eminent domain, it can take the lands needed to complete the project.

The process for improving Highway 160 began almost a decade ago and could take decades more to complete, but the debate over the project hasn’t ended yet.

“Like all brothers and sisters they don’t agree on much,” said Daniel Gregory, a local attorney who represents the Webbs and specializes in construction and real estate litigation. “But the one thing they do agree on is that they never wanted to see this ranch destroyed.”