ASPEN - Pitkin County Open Space and Trails can potentially come up with the money for a $6 million to $7 million Rio Grande Trail project, but should it?
That was the gist of a conversation among members of the county's open space board Thursday.
Paving the remaining unpaved section of the Rio Grande outside Aspen or providing a paved alternative is financially doable, the board was told, but at least one member questioned whether Open Space and Trails ought to be considering an expenditure of that magnitude to address a four-mile link of gravel trail.
"We're talking about over a million a mile for a bicycle trail," said board member Anne Rickenbaugh. "I've had a couple of people come up to me and say, 'What are you, nuts?'"
"Thank you, Anne. I couldn't agree more," said board member Tai Jacober.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't do it," Rickenbaugh clarified. "I just think this is a serious conversation we need to have."
At issue is a section of the popular trail above Woody Creek and below Aspen - the only gravel piece in an otherwise paved trail that stretches 42 miles between Aspen and Glenwood Springs.
"It's not an accident this last piece is left, because it's got a lot of problems," said Dale Will, open space director. "It's not an easy fix."
About two miles of the gravel segment, below Aspen's Stein Park, exist in large part on a narrow platform cut into a steep shale bluff.
Potential solutions include paving the entire four miles and providing a separate gravel surface on the lower two miles, where there is room for both, or providing the dual surfaces in the lower two miles and then diverting a paved path across the Roaring Fork River gorge and linking it into the Aspen Business Center. The latter alternative involves a roughly $2 million bridge. The Tiehack bridge over Maroon Creek has been offered as an example of the envisioned span.
Eliminating a trail underpass at the business center or adding sections of safety rail along the existing Rio Grande if it's paved means that both alternatives pencil out to about $6.2 million.
Will said he hopes to have a decision by January from the open space board and county commissioners so 2013 can be spent creating final engineering designs and lining up funding for 2014 construction, assuming that a project goes forward. A potential round of trail grants by Great Outdoors Colorado in 2014 could be part of the financial package, he said.
"We would be gearing up to make a very large pitch for a (Great Outdoors Colorado) contribution to this project," he said.
Open Space and Trails funding and financing from other potential partners also is envisioned, Will said.
"Financing, I don't think, is the driver here," he said. "Really, the conversation should look more at the public benefit of what's being proposed."
The option recommended by the open space staff - the bridge and new trail connection to the business center - emerged during the most extensive public-outreach process the open space program has ever undertaken, Will noted, suggesting that it already has some buy-in from residents.
"Sadly, I think there's a great amount of public out there that doesn't realize this is on the table," Rickenbaugh said. "There's going to be a huge hullabaloo over this."
Board members and open space staffers will host another public open house to outline the options from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 28 in the Colorado Mountain College gallery room in Aspen. In addition, the board is slated to discuss the trail alternatives with county commissioners on Dec. 18.
Jeff Woods, city of Aspen Parks and Recreation director, acknowledged the price tag for the Rio Grande project might raise eyebrows in the county, but some city trail projects have cost more than $1 million a mile, including the bike-trail link to Aspen Highlands and the cantilevered trail along Cemetery Lane.
"We have a long record of building expensive connections. Without them, you don't have a system," he said.