After authorizing an initial scoping process in July for the updating of Cottonwood Pass, Gunnison County has arrived at a bit of standstill in its effort to begin construction on the road. The pause, of course, is related to funding.
According to the Central Federal Lands Highway Division, the price tag on the proposed safety improvements and paving of the high mountain highway is $27,115,000. Of that, the county would be required to provide a 17.2 percent match in funds, or just more than $5 million, by spring 2018. That’s a lot of money to come up with, especially during a period when incoming dollars from oil and gas development in the county are on the decline, said Gunnison County Commissioner Phil Chamberland. “I’m in favor of paving Cottonwood Pass, even at $5 million,” said Chamberland, “but I’m not willing to do it at the expense of our comfort level with our fund balance, and I do think this would try our comfort level.” Cottonwood Pass, also recognized as County Road 209, connects Gunnison County to Chaffee County via the Sawatch Range. The Chaffee County side of the pass is already paved; however, the road is gravel in Gunnison County and is made more notable by a series of hairpin turns. Improvements to the pass qualify for funding under the Federal Lands Access Program, which supports work on public highways, roads, bridges, trails and transit systems located on, adjacent to, or providing access to federal lands. “It used to be that the improvements would have been covered completely by federal funding, and when they paved the Chaffee side that was the case,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Paula Swenson. “Now, though, with the planning and construction our contribution would be $5 million.” Swenson said she and the other commissioners were willing to commit the county to paying for the planning and environmental assessment of the construction plan, but at this time they were not willing to sign on for the remaining portion of the project because they were unclear how the county could pay for it. The planning and assessment would cost about $240,000. “I wouldn’t have a problem with committing to the engineering right now,” said Swenson. “But committing three to four years out on $5 million when we don’t have a good plan is a little scary to me. With the work it requires each year, Cottonwood costs us a ton of money annually, but it’s not $5 million.” Gunnison County Public Works director Marlene Crosby said she would love it if the county were to provide its share of funding for the planning stages of the project. Even if the full project were not completed, having the plan would allow the county to work on Cottonwood in a piecemeal fashion, she said. “If the planning and assessment were done, it would not be wasted because we could pick that up and use some of those opportunities,” said Crosby. The discussion about improving and paving Cottonwood Pass began nearly 40 years ago, and has been regularly brought before the public, last receiving serious consideration in 1994. The current plan calls for the widening of the road to 22 feet from its current 16 feet, the creation of several pull-outs, the installation of guard rails and paving the road. A decision about paying for the engineering of the project must be made by October 1