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Lake City construction company facing thousands of dollars in extra costs due to closure of U.S. 50

Mike Schell is the owner of Coal Creek Construction in Lake City, Colorado.
Laura Palmisano
Mike Schell is the owner of Coal Creek Construction in Lake City, Colorado.

UPDATE 4 p.m. on 5/7/24 at : The Lake City Cutoff, also know as CR 26, will open to commercial motor vehicles and trailers starting Thursday, May 9. According to transportation officials, CMVs and trailers using the bypass must comply with Colorado's "legal maximum vehicle dimensions and weights" and no "overweight vehicles (more than 85,000 GVWR) or placarded hazardous materials loads will be allowed."

A Lake City-based construction company can't start its first job of the season due to the bridge closure on U.S. 50 between Montrose and Gunnison. Coal Creek Construction's heavy equipment is stuck in Montrose. It was set to start work for the U.S. Forest Service in Crested Butte at the beginning of this month. The company says it would cost thousands of dollars to move its equipment using the Interstate 70 detour. 74-year-old Mike Schell heads the small, family-owned and operated business. He has nearly four decades of experience in construction and dirt work. He wants to see the Lake City Cutoff open to commercial vehicles (in excess of 16,000 GVWR) doing business locally.

Mike Schell: The biggest effect it's having on us financially is that we have to move our equipment with a semi-truck and a lowboy trailer. We can't get between Montrose and our work in Crested Butte right now without going around by I-70. Which will add many hours to the mobilization. So, we're looking at either not doing the job or something - we don't know why yet.

Laura Palmisano: Perhaps delaying the work?

Schell: We can delay it to a point. It's for the Forest Service. So it's a hard bid with specific start and end times. They've been good to work with in the past. If we thought we could get over the cutoff road or another route that would cut six hours out of that trip — five trips — so we might look at extending the time to start to a later time.

Palmisano: But, you can't get over the cutoff road right now.

Schell: They won't let us take a truck over the cutoff road right now. Right now I think it's just cars, not even trailers. So, we'll either have to go around by Grand Junction, Glenwood Springs, Avon, down to Leadville, down to Poncha Springs, over Monarch Pass to Gunnison, back up to Crested Butte.

Palmisano: And how does that cut into your bottom line? I mean, you're a business and you're trying to make money.

Schell: We figure it'll cost us an extra $20,000 to $25,000. I mean, you have to get it there, but then you also have to either take it home or move it to another job somewhere else. And if it's Montrose or anything on that side of the bridge, the Montrose side of the bridge, you got to go all the way back around if they won't let us take the cutoff road.

Palmisano: So for now, the cutoff road is not open to big equipment. It is the start of the work season in Hinsdale County, Gunnison County, for folks that do machinery operation, dirt work. What are you thinking might happen for your summer?

Schell: We don't know. The next sequence of projects that we had were up there also working for roads for Montrose Forest Products so they can log and haul logs down to the mill in Montrose. Which obviously they can't do now either. Because they can't go over the cutoff road either.

Palmisano: So what's happening is not just affecting your business, it's affecting companies in Montrose.

Schell: Oh, absolutely. Montrose Forest Products, I believe, have about 125 employees at the mill. I was talking to them, and they're looking for other sources for logs that they can get to. But right now they've shut it down to only three days a week, and they're talking about just shutting it down. So that will affect your log truck drivers, your loggers, all the people working at the mill. Yeah, it's pretty significant.

Palmisano: You've been in Hinsdale County a long time and you've worked in road equipment and machinery operation for a long time. What are your thoughts on what's happening?

Schell: Having built a lot of Forest Service roads, obviously they're not the same as a high traffic highway, but that cutoff road, been there a long, long time. It will service, in my opinion, heavier trucks. It won't service the amount of traffic that Highway 50 had. I think it would be very expensive to maintain that road; you’d have to blade it every day, every other day, every third day, something like that. To get trucks that we need locally, specifically for Lake City or Gunnison or Montrose won't hurt it, in my opinion. I think if we took, even use a pilot car, go slow, don't get to tearing it up, but I think it would hold up just fine.

Palmisano: And what about the other cutoff once it's opened, the Blue Mesa? Do you think it could handle additional traffic if it was maintained well?

Schell: If it's maintained well, it's about the same program. It doesn't have quite the capacity, I don't feel, not that I'm that much of an expert as the Sapinero cutoff (Lake City Cutoff), but yeah, it will. We've hauled trucks over that, concrete trucks, lowboys, loaded logging trucks.

Palmisano: How would you describe your work? Like mainly, what does your business do? How would you describe your business?

Schell: What we do is we'll go in, either for the Forest Service or for Montrose Forest Products, and bring the roads up to standard so that they're safe. We do signage, culverts, cattle guards, campgrounds, build roads from scratch, close roads - anything that has to do with dirt work we pretty much do.

Palmisano: And where do you work predominantly?

Schell: All over the Western Slope. We've done work on the Grand Mesa, up Cimarron, Little Cimarron. The last few years they've been doing heavy logging up around Taylor Park, Tin Cup. So we've been doing a lot of work up there, Boston Peak, Spring Creek. It kind of depends on where they're working, where we work.

Palmisano: Do you have anything else you want to add? Any other concerns about this closure?

Schell: I don't think that some of the people that are making these decisions have really had it well thought out with the impact this is having. What we've talked about here is just one little bitty part of a huge problem. I mean, we're nothing compared to all of Hinsdale County, Gunnison County, Montrose County, I don't think anybody knows yet how big of an impact this will have if we can't get trucks over that cutoff road.

Palmisano: Or the bridge repaired.

Schell: Or the bridge repaired, yeah.

Laura joined KVNF in 2014. She was the news director for two years and now works as a freelance reporter covering Colorado's Western Slope. Laura is an award-winning journalist with work recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Colorado Broadcasters Association, and RTDNA. In 2015, she was a fellow for the Institute for Justice & Journalism. Her fellowship project, a three-part series on the Karen refugee community in Delta, Colorado, received a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
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  • With each passing day the impacts from the US 50 closure between Montrose and Gunnison are being calculated around the dinner table by small business owners who depend on the highway. KVNF’s Brody Wilson recently spoke to one family in Montrose whose livelihood is being significantly affected.