August 15, 2013 Updated: August 15, 2013 at 5:20 pm
One fatality, severe property damage and many stranded motorists have prompted the Colorado Department of Transportation to get more aggressive with monitoring and potentially closing U.S. Highway 24 between the towns of Manitou Springs and Cascade.
CDOT announced Thursday that crews will patrol the roadway 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through Oct. 1.
The goal, said spokesman Bob Wilson, is to avoid a repeat of the Aug. 9 tragedy, when, in the midst of the weekday evening commute, flood waters rushing over the Waldo Canyon burn scar area took the life of a Teller County resident and left sections of Manitou looking like a mud wrestling pit.
"We're being pre-emptive because last Friday, it went from a flash flood watch to a flash flood warning instantaneously," he said. "Now, even under a flash flood watch, we can immediately close the road and react quickly."
It won't take much rain to trigger the new protocol.
Whenever the National Weather Service issues a flash flood warning - meaning flooding is imminent - or more than one-quarter of an inch of rain collects in rain gauges strategically placed in the burn area, CDOT and the Colorado State Patrol will automatically close the highway, Wilson said.
Ute Pass will remain shut down until the warning is lifted and the highway is rid of any debris that may have washed down the foothills.
"You always walk a fine line when you close a highway. There are times you close a highway and nothing happens. That creates problems for commuters because it appears to be an unnecessary closure. That's what we're trying to avoid. But we're also not going to take any chances any more," he said. "We're taking these precautions to maintain the safety of the traveling public."
Motorists say while they realize it's a tough predicament, it's unfortunate that complete closure of the vital highway that links Colorado Springs to the western section of the region is the answer. About 25,000 vehicles per day travel between west Manitou Springs and Cascade, according to CDOT.
"We're caught in the middle - you can understand what they're doing because you don't want anything like that to happen again, but on the other hand, it's frustrating. It's definitely going to cost me time and money," said Andy Gressett, a small-parcel delivery man from Colorado Springs whose route is in Teller County.
The new system, he said, seems "a little overcautious."
"It seems like maybe they could still use the eastbound lanes for up and down traffic because it's the westbound side that's worse," Gressett said.
Tom Haggard, owner of North Pole, Home of Santa's Workshop in Cascade, said he won't be critical of the new procedure because "somebody's got to be in charge, and it's them."
"I would just hope that they would be cautious and not close it unnecessarily," he said. "I don't think any of us has an answer to stopping the flooding, but I do believe that they're going to have to come up with a more sophisticated monitoring system where they have more of an idea of what's going on."
Electronic message signs along the highway will alert drivers to the weather forecast and road conditions, saying Flash Flood Watch, Proceed With Caution; Flash Flood Advisory, Travel Not Recommended; and Road Closed.
Wilson said CDOT is investigating early flash flood detection systems that would provide automatic electronic message sign warnings and automated road closures.
CDOT is stepping up its efforts to get the word out about whether the highway is open or closed, Wilson added. Information will be updated at www.cotrip.org or by calling 511 from a cell phone.
Drivers welcome that.
"The first time they shut the Pass down I was stuck in my work truck in between Cascade and Manitou for two hours, then turned around for 20 minutes. Then they re-opened it. You just can't tell what's going on," Gressett said.
The best detours from Colorado Springs, south through Canon City to Highway 9 and into Teller County, or north to Castle Rock, west to Highway 67 through Sedalia and into Woodland Park, each take about three hours, one way.
Other options to get from here to there, Mount Herman Road north of Colorado Springs and Old Stage Road on the south, are worn, rough dirt roads.
"Mount Herman is washboard with blind curves and narrow spots. And it's not as bad as Old Stage," Gressett said. "It's a tough call."
To receive closure updates about Highway 24 via email or text, go to www.coloradodot.info and click on the cell-phone icon in the upper right-hand corner.
Even though Haggard's amusement park has been impacted by the road closures, he's taking it in stride.
"It makes people nervous every day - there's no getting away from that," he said. "But you can't get mad about it. You have to trust that CDOT will do the best job."