By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Renewed consultations between various federal agencies have delayed the next phase of Highway 9 widening, between the AGAPE church and Tiger Road.
Local officials previously announced that the four-laning was all-but certain to begin this spring, but Colorado Department of Transportation engineers reported Tuesday that wildlife and land trade issues will delay the start of construction at least until September 2010.
Part of the delay is related to planning for a Colorado Trail parking area and trail head at Gold Hill. CDOT planners said some land in that area will go from one federal agency to another as a result of those plans, but that the review and approval process for the conveyance could take six to eight months.
“That highway is not just important for Summit County,” said commissioner Thomas Davidson. “It leads to one of the busiest ski areas in the country. It’s important for the tourism economy of Colorado,” Davidson said, urging CDOT to work with local officials to expedite the process.
Another potential delay could come as the transportation agencies clarify their plans for wildlife officials who are concerned about impacts to lynx. The cats are on the endangered species list, requiring special consideration whenever federal agencies plan any actions on federal lands.
Collisions with cars is the leading cause of lynx deaths in Colorado. A lynx was killed on Highway 9 in 2008. The state has spent $3.5 million on trying to establish a self-sustaining population of lynx in Colorado the past 10 years.
In this case, the Grand Junction office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked to re-open consultation on the Highway 9 project to make sure that a planned bridge across the Blue River to meet mitigation requirements for the rare cats.
“They (the Fish and Wildlife Service) seem to be OK with the wider bridge at Blue River as far as mitigation for lynx, said CDOT’s Chuck Attardo. “I think we got it smoothed out,” he said, adding that the federal wildlife agency asked for some “unorthodox lynx stuff,” in the consultation process.
Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Alison Michael said that, from her agency’s standpoint, CDOT is cleared to start construction with regard to lynx. The Fish and Wildlife Service completed a required biological report in the past few weeks, although details of some of the conditons still need to be finalized.
“They’re ready to go,” Michael said.
A crucial element will be monitoring to see whether wildlife uses the area under the new bridge as a wildlife crossing. CDOT will be responsible for the monitoring and could use cameras or track pads to determine what kind of animals move through the area.
If another lynx is killed by a car in the corridor, the agreement states that CDOT and the Fish and Wildlife Service will restart the consultation process, Michael added.