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Many town staff come from ‘beyond the bridge’

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By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff

It has not been a month yet that the Grand Avenue bridge in Glenwood Springs has been closed to traffic, while construction crews have worked on building a new bridge and taking down the old one and dramatically snarled the daily commute of some area workers in the process.

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In Carbondale, the reactions mostly have been resignation at a necessary bump in the road (the idea being that the modern bridge will add efficiency and a new sparkle to the interconnection between I-70 and the streets of the city).

This accepting mood has mingled with a hint of frustration as the daily grind has gotten a little more, well, grinding on the nerves of those who live “north and west of the bridge,” a zone that stretches from West Glenwood Springs to Cattle Creek, and the towns of New Castle, Silt, Rifle and Parachute that are strung along the interstate in the western portion of Garfield County.

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That cavalcade of stressed-out commuters includes a growing number of Carbondale workers forced to find more affordable housing in Glenwood Springs or beyond, as the cost of buying or renting a home in Carbondale has outpaced their financial wherewithal.

This rising tide of people who work here but can’t afford to live here currently is being accommodated, at least in part, by a variety of actions taken by the Town of Carbondale to help its employees through the three-month closure of the bridge, which is supposed to end around Thanksgiving.

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The shuttle

Town employees themselves who live “beyond the bridge” have the option of using a combination of shuttle services, driving themselves as they traditionally have, or riding out the three-month project by living with friends or at the Gateway RV Park adjacent to the Highway 133 bridge over the Roaring Fork River.

The Ride Glenwood bus system picks people up around 5:30 a.m. or a little later in West Glenwood and delivers them to Two Rivers Park, on the north side of the Colorado River.

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From there, the commuters walk across to the Glenwood Springs City Hall, where they are picked up by Carbondale’s own shuttle van, which typically carries 10-13 people to different stops in Carbondale — Town Hall, Public Works and the Utilities Department — a process that is reversed in the evenings.

One positive outcome of the revised commute, according to Carbondale Finance Officer Renae Gustine, has been the ability to keep tabs on the bridge deconstruction/ construction work.

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“You get to see everything, because you’re standing right above the activity,” she said of the walk across the pedestrian bridge from one shuttle to the other.

Gustine, who has lived in West Glenwood for about four years since moving back to the area following a hiatus, had mostly driven to work prior to the bridge closure, typically arriving at around 7:30 a.m. and leaving late on some nights (especially on Tuesdays, when she stays for part or all of the Board of Trustees meeting.)

With the town on a modified schedule of four 10-hour days to alleviate some of the hassle for workers,  Gustine said, “It’s been fun. This is like real urban living, and I don’t have to pay for it (the shuttle is free during the project’s duration).”

“It’s not a big deal,” she said, though she is concerned about the coming winter snows.

“Then it could become a big deal,” she mused.

To carry a change of clothes and other gear for the day of work, Gustine said, she bought a backpack, noting, “It’s my first backpack ever.”

Overall, she said of the new commuting reality, “I think it’s great. It’s a good way to appreciate a familiar situation in a different manner, where you have to re-evaluate everything. I’m a lot more receptive to riding RFTA (the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s buses), when I learned how truly easy it is to get around on it.”

She also said it has been fun to get to know some town employees she had not met before, and to use the van-riding time to talk with her son, who is working in Tokyo, Japan, across the International Date Line and in a radically different time zone.

Another town employee, Parks & Cemeteries Dir. Russell Sissom of New Castle, also has given up his car for the time being, though he expects he will drive himself to work again once the bridge project is finished.

“I’m not an early riser,” he explained concerning his disinclination to ride the town’s shuttle prior to the bridge project, which cost $25 .

Plus, he said, he’ll be glad when the municipality returns to its old five-day work week.

“I don’t like four-tens,” he said, “but having Friday (as a bonus day off for three months) is golden.”

The RV park

To offer another break to its employees, the town has made some of its Gateway RV Park spaces available free to town workers.

One of these hardy souls is Streets Foreman Smiley Wise of the Public Works Dept., who lives in the town of Mack west of Grand Junction and, at two hours each way, has had the longest commute in town for years. But he said he decided to live in his RV “when they first started getting serious about blocking that bridge,” which would have boosted his commute by another hour or two due to delays during rush hour.

Wise lives in the RV from Monday through Thursday and on Thursday night returns to his small ranch, and his wife, leaving the RV in the park over the weekend.

“I think it’s real nice of the town,” he told The Sopris Sun. “It’s not something I can’t live with,” particularly since his wife stays home to manage the ranch and the livestock.

The ‘safety lane’

Carbondale Police Lt. Chris Wurtsmith, who also lives in West Glenwood, said the van trip was disturbingly long at first, but that it has been shortened by the creation of a “safety lane” on the shoulder of Highway 82, along which shuttles and High Occupancy Vehicles can drive to bypass the daily traffic jams that have arisen thanks to the bridge project.

“The first two days, we were over two hours getting to town,” Wurtsmith said, meaning the drive from Glenwood Springs to Carbondale.

But once the Colorado Department of Transportation designated the “safety lane,” he said, the drive-time dropped to a little more than half an hour.

Wurtsmith also said he had twice commuted to work on his bicycle, along the Rio Grande Trail that connects Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, and added, “I see a lot of folks commuting on bicycles.”

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