Too soon to estimate infrastructure costs and repairs

County Line Road collapsed in the flood.
Photo by Susan France

This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.

At this point, how many miles of road need replacing and bridges need rebuilding is still being tallied. Lingering floodwaters delayed the inspections by Colorado Department of Transportation staff and Xcel Energy that would be the first step in establishing a firm timeline and dollar amount for the infrastructure recovery facing Colorado after massive floods.

“We haven’t really been able to get in to get a good look at a lot of these canyons, and that’s where we feel the most significant damage is,” says Mindy Crane, deputy communications director for the department.

“We know the major reconstruction of U.S. 36, for instance, we know that’s going to take months and will probably go well into next year,” Crane says.

Roads that have been undermined by water washing the soil out from underneath can’t really be repaired.

“You’re basically starting almost like you’re building a new road,” Crane says. “You’re starting from scratch and having to build everything from the base to the pavement.”

Bridges are now designed to withstand a 500-year flood event — had every bridge in the state been built with modern standards and if states had seen their budgets for transportation increase in the past 10 years, the number of losses might be lower. But many of the bridges in Boulder County were built decades ago, to different standards, and are in need of updates, according to reports from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“There would have still been damage, there would have still been structures that wouldn’t have stood up, but we would have been in a much better situation,” says Colin Haggerty, former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and water resource engineer for the transportation firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. But replacing a bridge is expensive, and the state has been facing a limited budget for most of the last decade.

Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Very rough estimates peg the costs of replacing the highways and bridges damaged at $1 million per lane mile of road, and $150 per square foot of bridge — or about $1 million for a 100-footlong, 65-foot-wide bridge. When two bridges were replaced in Big Thompson Canyon in 2009-10, the cost was $3.8 million. Now, the department is facing the destruction of at least 30 state highway bridges and serious damage to another 20.

The American Society of Civil Engineers released a report this year estimating that $3.6 trillion needs to be spent to get nationwide infrastructure to meet modern standards.

“The amount of money is staggering, and that was before you even account for an emergency like this,” Haggerty says.

Federal assistance will cover some of the costs of repairs — 75 percent, according to the presidential declaration. State funding for the rest of repairs may take away from other projects.

As repairs move forward, reconnecting communities that now have limited access or have been entirely cut off — Nederland, Jamestown, Lyons and Estes Park — will be priorities. The department may look at temporary solutions, such as single lanes or roads that alternate the flow of traffic, or aren’t quite to standards in terms of shoulder widths, to do whatever is necessary to reestablish roads to those areas before freezing temperatures make it impossible to continue construction.

Known damage on Highway 119 up Boulder Canyon to Nederland includes rockslides and slopes that need scaling to prevent further slides, and bridges and canyon walls will be inspected for rockslide potential. So far, it seems mostly passable, but that was an area inspectors had to pull out of on Sunday Sept. 15 when rain began to fall again. It may take a couple months to reopen the highway, Crane says, or it may be complete in less than a month.

Photo by Cecelia Gilboy

For the thousands of Xcel customers around the Front Range without natural gas or electricity, repair times are variable — natural gas is definitely expected the biggest issue, says Gabriel Romero, spokesperson for Xcel. But for now, it’s tough to tell how big an issue. They’ve used a helicopter to take photos and get a general idea, and they know that anywhere there’s water needs to be inspected, and that all the natural gas meters that have been underwater will likely need to be replaced, but the results are still preliminary.

“We just can’t get in there, for the most part, we can’t get to where we need to go, so we do not even have a full assessment of the damage our system has received,” Romero said on Monday afternoon Sept. 16. “We usually start with the biggest areas first and then work our way down, in this case we’re just doing what we can when we can.”

As of that Monday, there were 7,000 Xcel customers without natural gas and 500 without electricity in Boulder. There were about 30 electrical poles down in the flooded areas, but once replaced, the electricity can simply be switched back on. But the natural gas lines are all underground — or, at least, they were, until they were hit with floodwaters for days in a row.

“What we’re seeing out there in the field, and this is very preliminary, is pipes that were at one time buried six feet in the ground are now 20 feet in the air with cars below them,” Romero says. “This kind of damage to our system is a whole different type of thing.”

Xcel staff will have to reassess the entire system, inch by inch, and then go door to door to relight each home — and can only be done after residents have returned to their homes.


This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.