Highway project reminds Western Coloradans: Coal is tanking

The swooping concrete arch rising out of the barren lands between Delta and Hotchkiss is a jaw-dropping upgrade on a mostly two-lane rural highway – and now also an ironic in-your-face reminder that the coal industry in that area is on the skids.

The $13.1 million Colorado Department of Transportation project was designed to take vehicles over a deadly railroad crossing that had four to six long coal trains rumble through each day when the project was planned and funded. Now, there are one to two trains as closures and layoffs have hit the three mines in the once bustling coal-mining country of the North Fork.

There had been previous widening improvements made on Highway 92 east of Delta, but the railroad overpass on Stengel Hill was such a large project it had only been on CDOT’s and the regional highway planning groups’ “dream list” until a combination of state and federal railroad funding came through. That was just before the first big hit to the area’s coal-mining industry came in the fall of 2013 when an underground fire at The Elk Creek Mine caused a closure.

The sad joke in the area is that the huge highway upgrade can now serve residents as they drive away from Somerset and Paonia in moving trucks.

The scope of the project at a time of downsizing in that area has generated local letters-to-the-editor and had CDOT phones ringing and emails pinging with questions from residents wanting to know why so many highway dollars are going to a white-elephant project.

It has given rise to conspiracy rumors: Can’t that money be diverted to other crumbling highways? Is that bit of highway getting such a massive upgrade because Delta County’s wealthiest and most infamous resident, Bill Koch, twisted some arms at CDOT?

The truth, according to CDOT Regional Transportation director Dave Eller, is that this project has been in the planning stages for more than a decade and was put out for bid back when the coal industry was thriving. And it was the Union Pacific Railroad and the Gunnison Valley Transportation Planning Region, not Koch, that made it a priority.

There is no conspiracy behind it, Eller said, just poor timing.

We would look at it a little different now. I can say that,” Eller said about one of the largest highway projects in Delta County in decades.

Delta County has lost nearly 600 coal-mining jobs in the past three years. The downturn began with Koch’s Elk Creek Mine having to shut down due to a fire. That was followed by the trimming of 150 jobs at the Bowie Resources No. 2 mine due to the loss of a large contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority. A cut of another 80 Bowie jobs was announced last week. The more than 300 mining jobs still at the West Elk Mine are also shaky because of a recent court ruling that may impact expansion.

Collectively, the loss of so many relatively high-paying jobs in an area where the average pay is around $32,000 a year, is a hefty blow of more than $43 million to the local economy.

The Town of Paonia, in particular, is reeling with a budget deficit. A Facebook message board for the town is filled with residents selling possessions as they downsize or move away. The Delta County schools are suffering with the sudden exodus of dozens of students.

This all underpins the grumbling over a pricey and eye-popping sweep of highway in a time of serious belt-tightening.

There had been 98 accidents on the stretch of road between 2007 and 2011 where a combination of factors made it a particularly dangerous stretch. The highway had a “twist” where it crossed the tracks. It also had two driveways with “blind” access because of a hill and a busy road into the Gunnison River Pleasure Park rafting and fishing business.

If CDOT engineers had had their way on the original designs for the project, it wouldn’t be such an in-your-face reminder of a flattened coal industry. CDOT wanted to build an underpass to take cars safely below the steady string of coal trains. But right-of-way disputes made that impossible. As a result, vehicles will now go over the mostly empty tracks.

Photo credit: Sharon Molerus, Creative Commons, Flickr.