CDOT wanted to keep detour traffic off Independence Pass, so they said it was closed, emails show

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DENVER (KDVR) — Colorado transportation officials are trying to explain why they posted that Independence Pass was closed when it was actually open to some traffic.

Drivers have been using navigation apps to get around the historic closure of Interstate 70, and thousands are getting directed to Independence Pass as a detour.

But the Colorado Department of Transportation is desperate to get commercial traffic and motor homes off the narrow pass. Vehicles are getting backed up on the winding road, and some trucks are getting stuck, causing long delays.

‘Technically kind of true’

The Problem Solvers started asking questions earlier this month when Pitkin County tweeted that Independence Pass was closed Aug. 4 because of a mudslide. We learned there was no mudslide that day.

The Pitkin County Sheriff tweeted that Independence Pass was closed on Aug. 4, 2021, but state emails show the road was open and transportation officials were just trying to keep detour traffic off the pass. (KDVR)

We asked CDOT why they said the pass was closed, when it was actually open.

Last week, CDOT’s Elise Thatcher confirmed to us there were no mudslides that day. She admitted there was “incorrect information” on the website, and that CDOT “corrected the information in less than an hour.”

But the Problem Solvers filed an open records request and found an email from Thatcher saying: “This spring, it’s been harder to get CO 82 marked as closed unless it’s truly closed, so more recently, I resorted to saying the road itself was closed due to flash flood danger… which is technically kind of true.”

It’s apparent from the internal emails we reviewed that CDOT can mark a road as “closed” either with an interface with Google Maps and the Waze app or by officially requesting that other apps do the same — even when the road is actually open to local traffic.

Another email from John Lorme, of CDOT’s maintenance and operations division, pushes for a colleague to update the apps and show the road as closed.

An email from Colorado Department of Transportation’s John Lorme from Aug. 4, 2021, when CDOT posted the Independence Pass was closed, although it was still open.

“I need this to show closed to traffic on the mapping apps, soonest. I will assume responsibility. All locals understand what’s going on. It’s the CMV and RV traffic that’s creating hazardous conditions. We used it in the map apps last year, and it was successful in reducing incidents,” Lorme wrote.

Intent was ‘keeping people safe’

On Friday, CDOT was pressed to explain whether they’re misleading drivers. Shoshana Lew, CDOT’s executive director, said it wasn’t the right decision, but that it was a fast-moving situation with changing conditions.

“Again, the staff that were involved in that admit they made a mistake. They moved on. It was corrected quickly. I think what we’re doing here is explaining what was going on in the background, and the intent was only about keeping people safe in a dangerous situation,” Lew said.

CDOT indicated that closing a road when it was still open to local traffic was something they did last year during the wildfires. They said today they have changed that policy and that this was just a mistake.

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