Just a few months after the exhibition date of Christo’s “Over the River” project was pushed back by a year, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) officials have announced that the work will be extensively examined for its potential impact on traffic on Highway 50, the central road that runs through Bighorn Sheep Canyon, the site of the installation.
Officials at CDOT — which is one the few organizations that has yet to issue a permit for “Over the River” — maintain that the traffic review is standard for any such large-scale project. “We are certainly not going to blindly rubber-stamp this project,” CDOT chief engineer Tim Harris told the Denver Post. “We’ll review like any other big project.”
But it seems likely that the department was influenced at least in part by members of Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR), a group that has, for years, dedicated itself fighting Christo’s project. ROAR sent new research and information to CDOT in advance of a public meeting the department held last Thursday, and a spokeswoman read a statement from ROAR aloud. (Members of the group declined to travel the 230 miles to the CDOT meeting after being guaranteed only three minutes of presentation time.)
“Over the River,” conceived by Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, proposes to hang shiny, polypropylene fabric over a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River for two weeks in August 2015. The project has been troubled from the start, with members of ROAR complaining about the potential impact on both wildlife and human inhabitants of the area and filing two lawsuits over the project.
ROAR’s latest complaints focus on the traffic problems that it says “Over the River” will create on Highway 50, questioning the plans offered by Christo’s team. One of the key issues is the mobile drilling rigs that will be used during the 2.5-year construction of the project. “Over the River” has said that in order to avoid blocking too much of the highway, they will use counterweights to stabilize the rigs, instead of outriggers.
But ROAR spokesperson Joan Anzelmo told Hyperallergic: “We’ve gone to the manufacturer in Wisconsin, and they have confirmed that that piece of equipment can’t be used without the outriggers, and that means that the highway will be blocked.” In the materials detailing its findings, ROAR explains that the required outriggers span 22 feet, while the highway is only 24 feet wide.
“‘Over the River’ has claimed that that piece of equipment only requires counterweights and that will only take up most of one lane. And that’s just not true,” Anzelmo continued.
ROAR has other traffic concerns as well. The group criticizes the plan to use the shoulder of the road as part of the main travel route for cars during much of construction and has raised concerns about emergency response vehicles being able to pass through. Anzelmo, who characterized the strip of highway in question as both “a vital commercial traffic link” and “one of the most accident-prone sections of roadway in Colorado,” explained:
Two days ago a highway mower sparked a fire in Bighorn Sheep Canyon, and everyone had to be evacuated. The local emergency responders did an outstanding job. If we had all of this equipment in there and suddenly you had a wildfire, we could have a huge disaster in the making. With all these natural disasters to deal with, there’s no reason to enable a man-made disaster and then we have to save people and clean up.
We reached out to Steve Coffin, a representative for Christo’s project, for comment. He had this to say (emphasis his):
The EIS specifically provides that there will never be a time when both lanes of the highway are closed. The federal permit issued by BLM specifically requires that there will be no more than one 400’ temporary, rolling lane closure every ten miles, in one lane only. This is also consistent with CDOT protocols. Christo has selected a highly professional and experienced drilling contractor and they have confirmed that “Over The River” will be installed within the requirements of the EIS and those protocols.
We also asked Anzelmo if there was any way or form in which ROAR would accept “Over the River.” She replied, “Not at all. It’s too dangerous, it’s superfluous, it’s not necessary.”
Anzelmo’s statement points to a larger philosophical difference that underpins the increasingly fierce debate between Christo’s camp and ROAR. On one side, there are those who believe strongly in the power of art and thus revere it, who think that, barring extreme conditions, an environment can and should be managed to accommodate an artwork; on the other, there are those who focus only on the practical realities of everyday life. For those who tend to side with the former group — who lean towards wanting to see Christo’s project realized and perhaps dismiss ROAR as overly anxious or inflexible — the “Over the River” drama compels one to at least consider what costs are acceptable in the name of art.