A Bridge to The Truth
More Than a Million Dollars a Mile
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
When the 270-foot bridge was installed across State Highway 91 (SH91) between Leadville and Copper Mountain last October it caught everyone’s attention: WHAT is that?
The short answer is that the pedestrian passageway is part of the Fremont Pass Recreation Trail (FPRT). The new bridge allows users to safely cross where the trail intersects Highway 91 at the entrance to the Climax Water Treatment Plant about 2 miles south of Copper Mountain Resort.
The long answer is that the newly constructed span way is the end-of-the-line for the recently promoted trail. In fact, there is NO plan to safely move the trail forward through the privately owned Climax Mine property nor even into Lake County, the county that hosts its very namesake: Fremont Pass.
As it stands now, once users cross the bridge, they will be forced back out onto Highway 91, a roadway that has been defined in the very narrative of the project as a public safety “hazard” mixing up motorists with cyclists all while navigating mountain roads. The highway is generally covered in snow or ice for nine months of the year, with the other three months presenting the challenges of the gravel and sand left behind by winter plows.
But perhaps more shocking than the Fremont Pass Recreation Trail being just another narrative that simply does not meet up with the reality being touted by local officials, is the price tag for those first three miles. At the end of that new bridge is a $5.5 million price tag, establishing a cost of more than $1.8 million per mile for the proposed 21-mile trail.
The Bridge of “Connecting Communities and Enriching Active Lives”
After several months of investigation, Leadville Today’s (LT) media inquiries with county, state, and even federal officials reveal that there is no plan or funding in place to complete the project. In fact, instead of “enhancing bicycle and pedestrian safety between the Counties,” the trail which snakes up Ten Mile Canyon beginning at Copper Mountain is likely to put even more cyclists out onto Highway 91 as the trail is promoted as an alternative for the growing crowd issues other Summit County recreation trails experienced, especially this past COVID-19 summer.
LT’s findings will reveal that more than four years since its inception the trail has gone cold.
But what was uncovered during LT’s media inquiries was a group of well-intended individuals and dedicated volunteers. Therefore, this post will report the facts including official documents and statements from “partners” with the intention of finding solutions to make the Fremont Pass Trail narrative whole. After all, most LT readers who weighed in on this social media conversation agreed it would be great to see its completion. For cyclists, for commuters, for the environment, for people raising money through a bike race for a children’s hospital or local non-profit, and especially, for the people living in Leadville Today who use Highway 91 regularly to see the trail complete would be a win. But for now, it’s time to unpack the story of A Bridge to the Truth.
VIDEO: Fremont Pass Trail Bridge Installation
The Birth of the Fremont Pass Recreation Trail
The story begins in 2016 when then-Governor, now US Senator John Hickenlooper created the “Colorado the Beautiful” initiative. The vision was to create a trail system that would allow cyclists to traverse the entire state by bike. For years, the project had been patchworked together but at this stage, there were still a few gaps in the map, and Highway 91 was one of them. The intention behind the initiative was to formalize the statewide plan thereby open up avenues for funding, particularly at the federal level.
In fact, 75% of those first three miles were funded by the Federal Highway Agency cemented on March 27, 2017 in a federal memorandum of agreement with Summit County officials and ta-da the FPRT was born. Pitched as “a collaborative effort between Summit and Lake Counties, the U.S. Forest, and the Climax Molybdenum Company (Climax) to create a regional recreational pathway connecting the pathway systems of the two Counties, passing through National Forest and Climax-owned properties on Fremont Pass,” the hope is to connect the Mineral Belt Trail in Lake County with the Ten-Mile Canyon Recreational Pathway at Copper Mountain.
With October’s installation of the bridge, the first three miles on the Summit County side are done. So what’s next in the plan? LT reached out to Jason Lederer with the Summit County Open Space and Trails, identified as the person overseeing the project. Maybe this community partner had some answers about where the trail would continue from there.
“Thanks a lot for reaching out to me about this exciting project! Though I have been actively working on the Summit County end of the project, I am not entirely sure where things stand with the Lake County segment. Your best bet is to reach out to the County directly for the most accurate and up-to-date information.”
So, LT did just that. However, before that part of the story is unpacked, it’s worth noting that the first three miles of the Fremont Pass Trail now give it the dubious distinction of being one of the most expensive trail systems in the state, coming in at a price tag of more than $1.8 million per mile.
The Climax Mine: The Richest Piece of Earth
For readers unfamiliar with the Climax Mine story, the phrase “the world’s richest known deposit of molybdenum ore” is a widely-accepted statement among mining market experts. And it’s also worth noting that its parent company Freeport-McMoRan has just come off a record year, being identified as one of the top mining giants in the world.
However, one of the other established truths about the private property that bookends each side of the Fremont Pass Recreation Trail is that while the international mining giant demonstrates its generosity in many ways, access to the property where proprietary, and often dangerous, mining operations are being conducted is highly regulated and restricted.
However, to be sure, LT reached out to the top brass at Freeport just in case something had changed and the notoriously private company had decided to allow public access to their property. External Communications Manager James Telle provided the following statement regarding the FPRT:
“Climax joins with the community in celebrating the milestone achievement of the completion of the pedestrian overpass for the recreational experience and the betterment of public safety. We support the continued cooperative discussions about the development of the trail system.”
Sounds like cyclists are back out on Highway 91. And the problem with that is public safety. For local tour guides directing visitors about recreational opportunities on the Freemont Pass Recreation Trail, cautiously consider the facts in the promo flyer. Riders should know the truth about what lies ahead beyond A Bridge to the Truth.
Beyond the bridge, there are steep grades. Just past the bridge, there are two rest areas off Highway 91 but you’ll have to battle the traffic on your own should a stop at scenic Clinton Reservoir be in your plans. And while it doesn’t say it in the promo piece, in order to eventually make it to the trail’s namesake – Fremont Pass – cyclists will be traveling along a poorly maintained highway with blind curves, soft shoulders, and most times, commuter traffic.
Of course, should cyclists make it to the apex at the 11,318-foot Fremont Pass they will be rewarded with spectacular views of the Continental Divide. But then what? Without a safe, separated trail cyclists are now directed to head down Highway 91 into the notorious Stork Curve, a portion of the highway that presents daily challenges for motorists, especially during storms. Is this the plan on the Lake County side?
Now four years later, after all the fist-pumps-and-loud-music, “community partnership” fanfare signed off on by politicians who no longer live in Lake County, what is the plan for this side of the pass. Who had the answers?
Ah yes, of course, the Lake County Recreation Master Plan. Residents are not likely to forget all the master-planning, sticky-note meetings from 2016 accompanied by a healthy share of snapping and clapping. The end result was a series of master plans designed to provide some continuity for the plethora of planning that was ushering in the 21st century for Lake County.
Surely the master plan contained the plan for the FPRT. Nope! Without even a mention of the project, the master plan – now four years old – doesn’t appear to be the working, living roadmap for recreation it promised to residents.
Then how about the Lake County Recreation Advisory Board? With a mission to “provide vision, guidance, and direction on recreation to the Lake County Commissioners,” certainly someone from this volunteer board could shine some light on the trail. Here is the respectful response from Board Chairperson Kevin Linebarger.
“(There is no) map for the Lake County side of the trail. There have been several alternative routes explored for land ownership identification, physical, topographic, hydrologic, and environmental concerns, ability to meet local, state, and federal design criteria, NEPA compliance, and cost considerations, but the County has not chosen an alternative route for further exploration due to funding constraints. In the absence of selection of the preferred alternative, a map is unavailable.” In another correspondence he added:
“Lake County supported Summit County in a partnership to complete planning on the alignment of the Lake County portion, however, it is a huge financial challenge to meet the design requirements laid out by CDOT, and especially in light of COVID, there is little planned for development in the near future or through 2021.”
Head Out on the Highway (91)
At this point, it was time to kick the ball a bit further up the chain, so LT reached out to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). After all, the agency that provided 75% of the funding for the $5.5 million project would have the answer. Surely, they had a map.
The inquiry led to Public Affairs guy Doug Hecox. He was helpful and responsive, providing the following “interagency documents” along with an update:
“FHWA has not received any applications for an extension of the current project. We know that local officials are doing some planning to eventually have the trail go into Leadville but FHWA has not been involved in those discussions.”
- READ the entire Federal Lands Access Program MOU for the Fremont Pass Trail.
Right Hand, Meet Left Hand
So what’s the big deal? Isn’t it enough that those first three miles are done and that portion of Highway 91 is safer down by Copper Mountain? And most readers who weighed in on the social media discussion agreed. Those $5.5 million miles of the FPRT are a huge improvement over the former vehicle-cyclist, road-sharing hazards through that part of the canyon.
But ask any commuter who continues to share the road with the saddle warriors who still choose to ride Highway 91, and they’ll tell you. Ask any Leadville carpooler, including the ones that got swept up and buried in the 2019 Avalanche when the snow let loose from one of the S-K-Y chutes, and they’ll tell you. Ask any ill-prepared cyclist who found themselves sharing a poorly maintained highway between Clinton Reservoir and Freemont Pass wrought with blind curves and soft-shoulders, and they’ll tell you.
The Freemont Pass Recreation Trail is not as it reads in promo piece.
- It does NOT . . . “Address the existing hazard for cyclists and motorists sharing SH 91 over Fremont Pass by creating a grade-separated regional recreational pathway for multimodal passive uses.”
- It does NOT . . . “Grade a separated pathway to contribute substantially toward enhancing the quality of life, safety, economic development, and community partnering opportunities GOALS for the Fremont Pass Recreation Pathway.”
- It does NOT . . . “Enhance bicycle and pedestrian safety between the Counties.”
- It does NOT . . . “Meet current and future recreational needs of residents and visitors to the high mountain region of Colorado.”
- It does NOT . . . “Improve statewide and regional economies by creating a passive recreation route between the Counties.”
- It does NOT . . . “Limit environmental impacts by utilizing existing infrastructure wherever possible.”
- It does NOT . . . “Achieve established Local and State-wide goals for Bicycle and Pedestrian infrastructure.”
And finally, It does NOT . . . demonstrate the best in recreational leadership for Lake County. But it could.