Driving over Red Mountain Pass is not for the faint of heart, and now it’s not for Durango School District 9-R buses either.
Victor Figueroa, the chief operating officer of the district’s Business Services Division, recently announced the district will no longer allow its vehicles to travel the pass. Previously, the district did not allow its vehicles to go over the pass in inclement weather.
“Each year, our Transportation Department reviews all the road conditions that our buses use to transport students to and from activities or in-district routes,” Figueroa told the 9-R school board in a Friday Memo update. “This year, after review of the Red Mountain Pass road condition, we have seen over time, and continue to see, degradation of the pass and the road. While we are confident in our drivers, the actions of others and the narrow nature of the road – not to mention the sheer drop offs – are a major concern.”
Throw in the occasional mudslide, rockslide or avalanche, and the pass is just too much of a risk, he said. USA Today named it one of the “World’s Most Dangerous Roads” in 2013.
District buses will travel to areas on the Western Slope north of Red Mountain Pass via Dove Creek or Moab, Utah, based on road and weather conditions, he said.
Research showed all districts in the region ban travel over Red Mountain Pass because of the troubling conditions, Figueroa said. Among those districts are Bayfield, Ignacio and Pagosa Springs. Cortez-Montezuma travels via Dove Creek or Moab because it is shorter for it.
“We have a procedure we took before the board,” said Jeff Whitmore, director of transportation and safety for Bayfield School District. “We won’t go over the pass with kids. There are very few ‘outs’ on that road. It’s not our drivers; it’s the tourists and RVs that convinced us it’s safer to go around.”
Groups of teachers or staff members in smaller vehicles and Suburbans in Bayfield’s fleet may go over Red Mountain Pass if conditions permit – and everyone in the vehicle agrees to take the route.
“I was in a school Suburban coming back from a conference in Delta about three years ago,” Whitmore said. “We were just going south out of Ouray when a guy on a motorcycle passed four or five vehicles in those tunnels. All I could think was, ‘What would one of my drivers do in that situation?’”
The change will cost money, Figueroa said, for the approximately 45 trips taken by teams. The district has three types of vehicles used for activities, a regular school bus, a short bus and Suburbans, and the cost per trip is calculated based on mileage and the driver’s pay.
A trip to Grand Junction via Red Mountain on a school bus is 165 miles, takes three hours and 40 minutes and is estimated to cost $330 one way. Traveling on the Dove Creek route is 245 miles, takes 4½ hours and costs $490 one way. And the Moab route, which also takes about 4½ hours and covers 271 miles, costs about $542 one way.
“We’re just absorbing the cost increase because it’s what’s best for kids,” Figueroa said. “The potential consequences would be tragic with those drop-offs.”
He reviewed the information and his recommendation with Superintendent Dan Snowberger, and Snowberger decided that effective immediately, Durango School District 9-R vehicles will no longer travel U.S. Highway 550 past Silverton.
“It’s about student safety and driver safety,” 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp said. “The road conditions and the weather are both unpredictable and tricky on Red Mountain.”