Colorado trucking company takes ‘huge hit’ from I-70 closures

Carriers in the trucking industry have been trying to dig themselves out of a hole ever since monsoonal rains hit western Colorado this summer. The storms came during normally dry months of the year, leading to major mudslides that blocked about a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 70 multiple times in the Glenwood Canyon area, about 160 miles west of Denver. This is part of a vital corridor for long-haul freight and agricultural products, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).

Erica Denney, sales manager for Denver-based Denney Transport, called the situation “unprecedented” for Colorado carriers. She told FreightWaves it’s been especially difficult for companies like hers that run fleets of refrigerated trailers.

“We have deadlines, we have short shelf life. We have to keep things at temp,” Denney explained. “That’s the additional struggle we had to go up against versus a dry load that might be late, but it’s not going to go bad.”

Denney Transport hauls mostly perishable foods. Erica has been working for the company, owned by her father, for six years. She’s been in the trucking business her whole life.

About 75% of Denney Transport’s hauls are down I-70 from Denver to Southern California. Unfortunately, there was no way around the closures without taking a hit. CDOT had to shut down the highway seven times between late June and mid-August due to mudslides and debris flows.

The longest closing lasted a little more than two weeks. “We were in constant communication with our shippers saying, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on, this is what’s happening.’ Those who are great partners with us ended up paying us a little bit more for a period of time,” Denney said. Denney added that the company did its best to split the difference when possible.

Drivers were rerouted to either Interstate 80 or 40 to keep them moving, but time was lost getting product delivered and getting drivers to their next loads. Other alternate routes in the region, which are mostly county roads, would take even longer. Efficiency was “out the window,” as Denney described.

But the company didn’t want drivers staying on the road too long, getting exhausted to make up for lost time, despite government waivers regarding electronic logging devices and hours of service regulations. Denney management tried to accommodate frustrated drivers by shifting them to eastbound routes in order to avoid the Glenwood Canyon closures. But these hauls make up a much smaller part of the business, so some of those drivers eventually quit.

Denney explained that she couldn’t yet put a figure on how much money the company has lost due to the amount of factors involved — extra miles and fuel, lost time, additional truck maintenance and losing a few drivers. But it’s definitely been a bumpy ride. “We took a hit.

At the end of the day, we took a huge hit, and it was incredibly frustrating for a period of time when it was constant,” Denney said. The rain, which hit from late June to early July and from late July to early August, added up to nearly 10 inches in parts of the Glenwood Canyon. This took out miles and miles of acreage, including in the mountain above where the Grizzly Creek fire burned last year.

Virtually everything holding the mountain together fell apart, leading to mudslides mixed with debris from the fire’s burn scar. Elise Thatcher, a CDOT communications manager, told FreightWaves that CDOT has had ongoing rockfall prevention measures in place for several years in Glenwood Canyon and anticipated debris flows due to the burn scar. To prepare, CDOT immediately installed additional rockfall fencing in the fall of 2020.

“It’s important to note that the materials flows that took place this summer … were amplified by the high amount of rainfall in a short period of time in one location. There was at least one location where rain fell near, but not on the burn scar, and there was a significant flow with rocks,” Thatcher said. “This means that weather, not just the burn scar, is a significant factor for potential materials flows in the future.” After the Grizzly Creek fire, CDOT also placed shredded wood straw mulch on 29 acres of burned soil next to I-70 and within the CDOT right-of-way, which is a narrow footprint along the canyon floor.

The U.S. Forest Service is overseeing stabilization options for Glenwood Canyon over the long term. Thatcher said flooding events in other parts of the state where CDOT roads were affected showed improved stabilization after four to five years.

CDOT continues periodic lane closures since there’s more debris to clean up and more road damage to repair. The next closure is from 10 p.m. CT Thursday until 6 a.m.

Friday, weather permitting. Eastbound lanes of I-70 will be shut down between exits 116 and 133. Westbound lanes will remain open.

CDOT also does preemptive closures when the National Weather Service issues a flash flood warning for the area. Denney is pleased with the CDOT’s progress and appreciates the excellent communication between the Colorado Motor Carriers Association and its members, as well as between CDOT and the CMCA. “We’re glad that, hopefully, the worst is behind us,” Denney said.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin. You might also like: Self-described ‘shaman’ arrested in California wildfire arson

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