The highway between Montrose and Ridgway is notorious for collisions.
On a single, 9-mile stretch of U.S. 550 between Otter Road, south of Montrose, and the Ouray County line, there were 194 crashes between 2011-15, according to Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) statistics. Five of the accidents were fatal; 63 percent involved wildlife.
To help reduce dangerous, costly collisions between animals (most of them mule deer) and cars, 8 foot-high fencing has been placed along sections of 550, and a wildlife underpass near Colona has been installed.
Seasonal speed limits, from 60 to 55 mph, were imposed at nighttime during fall and winter, when wildlife was most likely to be moving back and forth across the road.
If CDOT receives much-needed funding from voters next month — if propositions 109 and 110 pass on Nov. 8, respectively — more improvements await. Additional deer fencing and escape ramps will go up. Another underpass will go in.
And if voters turn CDOT down, there is still the RoadX Rural Road Safety Challenge.
“Many roads across this state are rural and cut across wildlife corridors” (the way 550 does), CDOT spokesman Lisa Schwantes said. “We’ve interrupted animals’ migration patterns” by building roads through rural areas. “We want to do what we can to mitigate it. To keep people safe, and not disrupt the movements of wildlife.”
RoadX is a CDOT program designed to use technological solutions to “make every trip easier, faster and safer.” Its Rural Road Safety Challenge — launched in cooperation with the states of Minnesota and Wyoming — is a multiyear competition, divided into three parts. Each segment will focus on a “key rural transportation issue. The first part of the contest, which began last month, deals with wildlife-vehicle collisions. Anyone over the age of 18 (besides CDOT employees) is eligible to submit an idea: “You can submit a concept as an individual or part of a team, classroom, company or community,” according to the submissions guidelines at roadxchallenge.com.
The contest, which is open through January , asks participants for “an innovative, comprehensive and implementable concept or tool that solves the unique problem” of wildlife-vehicle collisions on 550. (A “case-study” under the Submissions section of the website lays out the specific problems of collisions on a road that sounds very much like 550. And a question under the Judging section flat-out asks, “Can (this proposal) be applied to solve one of the key rural safety issues on 550? How?”)
Jeremy Guth, a trustee at the Woodcock Foundation in New York City, worked on the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative, a program that has (so far) helped to modify, and made safe passage for, humans and wildlife along 1,000 miles of highways from Alberta through Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. In the process, he said, “I learned how mesmerizing and engaging most people found the idea” of wildlife crossings.
Guth was inspired to create a contest — this one in Colorado, a famous 2011 initiative to solve a wildlife-crossing dilemma over I-70, west of Vail Pass.
“The idea was to try to reach a different professional demographic” — architects, designers and large-landscape conservationists — “and to solve an environmental problem,” he said. Just as important, the contest aimed to capture people’s imaginations. “The audience was the general public. People were really engaged, and responded every time we talked about it.”
The winners of the contest, design firm HNTB with Michael Van Halkenburgh of New York City, were awarded $40,000. (The top prize of the Rural Road Challenge is $10,000, and “entrants who receive the initial cash prize are eligible to receive additional incentive rewards to further engage in implementation.”)
“It was a really, really gratifying project,” Guth recalled. “The only disappointment was that the overpass was never built, though there was some hope on the part of CDOT that it would be.”
In another sense, the project succeeded: “The idea was to make gains in three areas,” Guth said. “To produce first-rate designs, an amazing product, and a lot of public response.
“I think a contest involving a smaller road” such as 550, he added, “would be much more doable.”