This story appears in the Sept. 30 print edition of Transport Topics.
Update: Congress approved increased road funding for Colorado Sept. 30.
Colorado officials have asked Congress to help rebuild a highway system devastated by severe flooding that has forced UPS Inc. and FedEx Corp. to use a dirt road for some deliveries and has left trucking fleets still assessing the damage to their equipment and buildings.
The area damaged by eight days of rain earlier this month stretches 2,000 square miles northwest of Denver and Boulder and in the gas and oil fields around Greeley, where wells were drowned.
“Early estimates are that at least 50 bridges will need significant repair — 30 of which must be fully replaced,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said in a Sept. 23 letter to House and Senate leaders. “Approximately 200 highway lane miles must be reconstructed,” he said in the plea to Congress to lift the statutory $100 million cap per disaster.
A preliminary report last week from government and university scientists called the flooding, which killed at least eight people, an “unprecedented” event.
“You have 85% of U.S. 34 [in Colorado] blown out; that’s how much has been devastated,” said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association. “It’s going to have to be totally rebuilt.”
U.S. 34 is an east-west route beginning in the north-central portion of Colorado and ending near Chicago.
Although the three interstates — 25, 70, and 76 — were mostly spared, some exits onto damaged state highways are closed, which will force trucks onto side roads, Fulton said.
“We’re going to end up, probably, having to run . . . smaller vehicles, which is going to mean more trips, which further exacerbates the driver [shortage],” he said.
The greatest economic damage to carriers may be in the gas and oil industry around Greeley, Fulton added.
“Some of these areas, it’s going to take a significant amount of time to come back,” he said.
Near U.S. 36, in an area where several bridges disappeared, Loukonen Brothers Stone Co. in Longmont, which hauls the stone it quarries on its seven trucks, was inundated.
“Our whole fleet [was] underwater,” said Mike Loukonen, fourth-generation owner of the company located about 35 miles north of Denver. “They all have water in the transmissions and the fuel tanks, and I’m sure in the oil, too,” he said, adding that the office was under seven feet of water, and his maintenance building was destroyed.
While Loukonen and other carriers in the area began to recover, relief trucks hauling food, fuel, bottled water and other supplies to the areas around Estes Park, a town of about 6,000 near Rocky Mountain National Park, were forced to navigate a dirt canyon road from Boulder that connects to a winding skyline route known as Peak to Peak Highway.
All three highways through the area — U.S. 34 and 36 and State Highway 7 — are closed.
“We are getting deliveries in now from UPS and FedEx,” said Kerrie Hill, spokeswoman for the Estes Park Medical Center, which depends on them for medical supplies.
Following the flood crest, Michael Ziniel, FedEx’s senior manager in Boulder, sent a station manager up the dirt and skyline route with the parcel needed for a medical emergency.
“He was gone seven hours on a trip that normally took about two hours and 20 minutes,” Ziniel said.
“Downtown Boulder is devastated; it’s just horrible,” added Ziniel, describing roads covered with two feet of mud and boulders. “I had two trucks stuck” in one day.
To help get backed-up freight delivered, FedEx and UPS put drivers in Estes Park hotels with trucks and then shuttled freight up the dirt route in other trucks.
“The biggest thing that we were really concerned about was the safety of the drivers getting there and being safe on the road, so that allowed them to . . . be fresh and safe,” said Gary Penaflor, who runs UPS operations in Longmont, which services the most devastated areas.
The first day UPS trucks made it up the dirt and skyline road, the reception was heartening, he said.
“The people in the town came out and started clapping, they were so happy just to see people from the outside world there and attempting to get their stuff to them,” he said.
UPS is sending a three-truck convoy daily along the route, but Penaflor said he’s put a curfew on the drivers so they get back down while it’s light.
Around Greeley and the South Platte River, about 60 miles north of Denver, water flooded oil and gas wells and presented delays for livestock and dairy haulers.
“The issue is just moving the milk from the dairymen to the market with bridges out,” said David Williams, fleet manager for Dairy Farmers of America. “We’re running additional miles, trying to move around in the areas where there are bridges out.”
Williams also said the cooperative runs trucks up to 110,000 pounds on non-interstate highways, and there is concern about traveling over compromised bridges.