The Colorado Department of Transportation may not be as inflexible as originally reported in regards to its plans to replace the Variable Message Sign in Pagosa Springs.
As the SUN reported last month, town planner James Dickhoff was informed in March of CDOT’s plan to replace its reader board sign, currently located just east of where U.S. 160 intersects with U.S. 84, with a new sign that would overhang the travel lane and be located near the west entrance to the San Juan Motel. This sign would warn travelers of any closures or restrictions on Wolf Creek Pass.
Because of the current location of the reader board, drivers are already out of town before they receive any such warning, meaning they must find a spot to turn around and either head back into town or change directions and head south along U.S. 84. This problem is especially onerous for truck drivers and CDOT has argued it would be better if they had an earlier warning so they could turn off onto the frontage road or into the Junction Restaurant parking lot.
“This is way too much into downtown for my taste,” councilor David Schanzenbaker pointed out. “This is just after the bridge; there are several businesses that would be after that sign. If you put a highway sign like that downtown you’re telling people it’s time to start accelerating because they’re leaving town.”
Dickhoff reassured town council that staff has already asked CDOT to make several modifications to the plans for the sign.
“I never appreciated the urgency of the matter based upon past council discussions,” local attorney Matt Roane explained later in an email to SUN staff. “I hope it is not too late to continue to seek more reasonable solutions.”
Roane also sent an email to town council: “I have observed your stated opposition to CDOT’s proposed message board over Hwy 160 with great appreciation. Thank you for your willingness to question a project that seems so out of place amidst our downtown neighborhoods and business district.”
Roane included a copy of the advertisement CDOT published on April 7 requesting bids from contractors. Today, May 1, is when CDOT planned to announce the final award of the sign installation contract.
“I urge you to continue immediate negotiations with CDOT before the project progresses too far along to change,” Roane’s email to town council concluded. “The damage that such a large sign would cause our town every day of the year grossly outweighs the benefit it would provide to truckers a few snowy days out of the year.”
Town manager David Mitchem reported to town council on April 17 that negotiations with CDOT were continuing, but there was substantial resistance to the idea of moving the sign closer to the edge of town.
On April 23, Nancy Shanks, CDOT’s local media representative, explained to SUN staff, “We feel this is the best place for the sign,” referring to the proposed location in front of the San Juan Motel. “This is actually a state-wide program, by the way. It comes out of our Intelligent Transportation Systems group. It is a state-wide priority that we upgrade our signs to better communicate with travelers, particularly as they approach mountain passes.”
Shanks described the attributes of the sign — it would only be lit up when there is a need (and if the pass is closed because of winter weather motorists would be inclined to slow down instead of speed up), its LED lights would be adjustable for brightness, and its structure would be painted brown for aesthetic reasons.
Shanks then outlined the reasons behind the proposed location for the new sign, “It’s more a matter of where it can be installed.” The chosen location is already owned by CDOT, is not within potential Pagosa Skyrocket habitat and has easy access to a source of electricity.
“It might be best for our traffic engineer to make this comment,” Shanks concluded, “because I might be missing the critical points.”
As it turned out, Karrie Neet, the transportation director for CDOT’s region 5, and Michael McVaugh, a CDOT traffic and safety engineer, agreed to meet with town council on Tuesday, April 29.
As the meeting began, Neet gave the town little hope CDOT would be willing to change the proposed location for the sign. “We apologize if it created problems. That certainly wasn’t our intent.”
Neet explained how the project came down from the state and why the town was given such short notice before reiterating the benefits of the proposed location.
“As far as where we’re at now,” Neet continued, “the bids are opening this Thursday (today), and we don’t have a whole lot of options at this point. We can delete it from the plans and not put any sign up. Personally, I’m concerned about that because I want to make sure there’s safe notification to people and they have an opportunity to turn around in a safe spot.”
Neet explained that there were 13 other signs in need of replacement within CDOT’s region 5, which covers the entire southwest corner of the state, and if they didn’t get taken care of now it would be five more years before the state would put them on the table again.
McVaugh then stepped in to explain the history of Variable Message Signs in Colorado, how they work and some of their capabilities. Not only can motorists be warned about pass closures in the winter, they can also get fire danger notices in the summer or read about Amber Alerts and other emergencies. In addition, all such signs can be controlled remotely from a central location near Denver, thus eliminating the need for a state trooper or snowplow driver to exit their vehicle during hazardous condition to turn each sign on manually.
Despite several concerns voiced by Dickhoff, Mitchem and Mayor Don Volger, including how the sign would disrupt the view of the mountains to the east of town or block the signs of businesses in that area, it seemed there would be no way for the town to talk CDOT out of putting one of these very large signs in the middle of Pagosa Springs.
That is until council member Kathie Lattin finally spoke up.
“I actually spent a few hours at the local gas station this weekend,” Lattin explained, “and talked to truckers who were going through town. Two of the things they recommended to me were … having a sign on the other end of Pagosa Springs … on the west side of town.”
Lattin explained this would give travelers the chance to think about their options and decide where to stop instead of getting all the way to the other end of town before learning about a road closure. McVaugh explained that CDOT has considered this option and it is willing to put a sign near the intersection with North Pagosa Boulevard, but then everybody in Pagosa at the time a message went up would miss it.
“The second thing that they (truckers) were bringing up,” Lattin continued, “is not one of them liked the idea of where CDOT wants to put the sign … They said, where the sign is right now, there is not a trucker on the road that if they can’t read that sign in plenty of time to turn off onto one of the frontage roads, or even take 84 at that point, then they shouldn’t be a trucker on the road.
“It should not be in town because there is so much other stuff going on that it is going to distract people too much. They see it being where you guys are proposing it as being more of a problem than keeping it where it is right now.”
“So you’re saying keep it where it is,” Neet replied, “but put in the bigger sign to meet the requirements, and they could see it from far enough away that —”
“Absolutely,” Lattin agreed, “and that wasn’t just from one or two truckers; I talked to at least twelve of them, and five of them were locals.”
It was at this point the conversation turned, and Neet and McVaugh began exploring what it would take to change the work order so that the new sign could be installed, not in front of the San Juan Motel as CDOT proposed, and not in the Junction Parking lot as the town suggested, but right where it is now.
Later Tuesday evening, Mitchem confirmed that CDOT was looking at a spot near where the current sign sits. “So the meeting was a very productive meeting, and CDOT is considering an option that actually none of us had thought of, originally.”
Both Mitchem and Volger praised CDOT for its willingness to work with local communities and pointed out the growing sense of cooperation between the agency and the town.