Routt County Rabbit Ears Pass may be a lot safer this winter thanks to an anti-icing compound commonly used on Interstate 70 and in the Denver area. It's known as magnesium chloride.
"It works like cooking spray," said Ed Fink, the state maintenance supervisor for Colorado's Department of Transportation.
"It keeps ice and snow from bonding with the pavement," Fink explained to the Routt County commissioners and members of the U.S. Forest Service on Monday.
Since Rabbit Ears Pass runs through national forest land, the U.S. Forest Service has to do an environmental study on how land bordering the road will be affected by the chemical compound. A recent Forest Service study showed that magnesium chloride damaged pine trees in the Pacific Northwest.
The man in charge of keeping Rabbit Ears Pass open during the winter is more worried about human life than environmental damage.
"I will do whatever is necessary for public safety this winter analysis or no analysis," said Bernie Lay, a CDOT maintenance superintendent out of Craig.
Lay is concerned about the relatively high number of accidents occurring on Rabbit Ears Pass, the main gateway used to get in and out of the Yampa Valley.
When compared to similar mountain passes, 9,426-foot Rabbit Ears has less traffic but more accidents, CDOT statistics show. Over the last two winters, six people died in car accidents on the pass, which receives, on average, more than 300 inches of snow a year.
The fatal accident rate on Rabbit Ears Pass in 1998, the most recent year from which statistics are available, was 24.31 per million vehicles. By comparison, snowy Wolf Creek Pass carries about 450 more vehicles a day than Rabbit Ears and its fatal accident rate in 1998 was 9.77 per million vehicles.
Kimberly Vogel of the Forest Service assured Lay that her agency is concerned about safety, but pointed out that the environmental study is required by law.
Fink said CDOT had no problems putting down the chemical in the Arapahoe National Forest and expects there is a memorandum of understanding which may allow CDOT to lay the new chemical without any delays this winter.
In the meantime, a study commissioned by CDOT shows the chemical is unlikely to cause harm to the water supply, but admits "chloride may damage vegetation very close to the roadways."
How will it work? CDOT says the magnesium chloride is most efficient when applied directly in liquid form.
"We can virtually eliminate icy conditions," Fink said. "You can spray with this and have it opened in a matter of minutes."
But since crews on Rabbit Ears don't have the proper machinery to dispense magnesium chloride in liquid form, the compound will be poured into a truck full of sand and then applied to the road.
"This allows the sanding material to embed in the snow and ice," said John Gunn from the Kremmling office.
Right now, the Rabbit Ears crew uses crushed volcanic rock called scoria to provide traction on the snowpacked highway. The problem is, the scoria is quickly blown off the asphalt by the traffic, making it difficult to maintain the road for any length of time.
"I want to quit using scoria on Rabbit Ears Pass," Lay insisted.
CDOT has found that magnesium chloride reduces snow and ice-related accidents by about 20 percent. And, unlike sand or scoria, it causes no air pollution problems. In fact, cities like Denver, Boulder and even Steamboat Springs have been required to use magnesium chloride because of pollution problems caused by typical sand and salt mixtures used on snowy streets.
A brown haze visible during winter in Denver winter was mostly attributed to the sands CDOT and other road crews were using.
Fink says the magnesium chloride won't entirely replace the use of sand and salt mixtures.
"There will be roads we'll always continue to use it on flat roads, straight roads," Fink said.
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