ASPEN - An alternative that leaves part of the Rio Grande Trail unpaved and creates a separate, paved connection to Aspen emerged Thursday as the preferred option among Pitkin County open space officials to provide the best of both worlds for trail users.
Moving forward with the estimated $6.2 million project is hardly a done deal, but the majority of county Open Space and Trails board members informally agreed that detailed engineering work on the option should be the next step. They're expected to take formal action Jan. 24 on a recommendation to county commissioners.
A budget allocation to do the engineering work this year, at an estimated $200,000 to $300,000, will require the approval of both the open space board and county commissioners.
Various options to either pave the 4.2 miles of the popular trail that remains gravel, forgo pavement and beef up the gravel or build an alternative, paved route have been the focus of debate, study and public input for about six months. The rest of the 42-mile trail, a former rail corridor connecting Aspen and Glenwood Springs, is already paved, and there has long been an expectation that the Rio Grande would eventually provide a seamless, paved route along the entire length of the Roaring Fork Valley.
This week, incidentally, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy named the Rio Grande Trail its trail of the month.
"People want to be able to ride a bike on a hard surface all the way into town," board member Anne Rickenbaugh said. "We've been hearing that for a long time."
There are, however, ardent supporters of retaining the gravel stretch through the scenic canyon area below Stein Park outside Aspen.
"It's not the crown jewel of Pitkin County, but it's pretty cool," Rickenbaugh said of the stretch.
"I really value the soft-surface trail," board member Tai Jacober said. "I think it's a neat amenity. I don't want to see that go."
Members of the public who offered input via various open houses and an online forum spoke eloquently on both sides of the issue, whether they advocated a paved option or retaining the soft surface, board member Tim McFlynn said.
"They expressed how valuable it is to have both objectives met," he said.
The preferred option for most members of the open space board will do that. It requires the construction of a bridge spanning the deep Roaring Fork River gorge, linking the Rio Grande and the Highway 82 side of the river at roughly the lower end of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport runway. A paved trail along the highway between the bridge and the Aspen Business Center would complete the connection, feeding into the city of Aspen's bike-trail system.
The upper two miles of the gravel stretch on the Rio Grande would remain unpaved under the scenario, while the bridge route would provide a paved alternative. Between the bridge and McLain Flats Road, along the lower two miles of what's now only gravel, both pavement and a soft-surface trail would be created.
Only board member Howie Mallory hinted at a willingness to pave the existing trail corridor throughout the section - a move that many feel would lead to unsafe bike speeds in an area with steep drop-offs. A guardrail in some areas would be necessary, the board has been told.
"I couldn't get past the guardrails," board member Hawk Greenway said. "You'd have to put up guardrails to keep people from killing themselves."
The engineering analysis would be done this year if the county decides to proceed, so the county could seek a Great Outdoors Colorado grant to help fund the project in 2014. Engineers could find a fatal flaw that leads the board to rethink the other options, members said. The feasibility of installing a bridge over the river, similar to Aspen's Tiehack bridge over Maroon Creek, represents the biggest engineering question mark.
Board members also suggested constructing the project in phases and creating the dual-surface trail on the lower two miles this year, but that decision has not been made.
If planning for the project moves forward, board members listed several ancillary efforts they'd like to see take place: communicating to the public that the project can be done without borrowing money, raising taxes or taking away from open space acquisitions; putting an envisioned master plan for the Roaring Fork gorge back on the front burner; and determining how users of the proposed new paved link would move into and out of Aspen. While there are several bike-trail links on the outskirts of town, the most direct route - riding along Highway 82 over the Castle Creek bridge - might be the least desirable from the city's perspective, Mallory said. There are only narrow sidewalks on the bridge, but it's not unusual to see bicyclists using them.