ASPEN - A gravel gap in the Rio Grande Trail might be around for a while.
On Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners pushed for a phased approach to dealing with trail improvements and urged holding off on a proposed new bridge over the Roaring Fork River to provide a paved alternative to the existing trail.
"I view this as visionary versus practicality," said Commissioner George Newman, echoing other commissioners in calling for something short of an estimated $6.2 million project to both improve the Rio Grande and construct a bridge and paved trail that would bypass the gravel stretch that would remain.
Installation of the bridge could come later, Newman said.
"I don't see that as an immediate need," he said.
The Rio Grande, built on a former railroad bed, is a 42-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail (some of it also sees use as a winter nordic trail) linking Aspen and Glenwood Springs. All but 4.2 miles of it is paved; the gravel piece - a section below Aspen and above Woody Creek - has long been a source of consternation for trail users who dream of a continuous paved trail running the length of the Roaring Fork Valley. The gravel stretch, part of which parallels the river in a scenic canyon below Stein Park, has its fans, though, and commissioners did not advocate paving it.
"The worse thing I think we could do is pave through the gorge part," Commissioner Steve Child said. "That, I think, is so special."
Commissioner Michael Owsley suggested that a dual-surface trail be created this year on the lower half of the 4.2-mile stretch, where there is room for both a gravel trail and pavement. He also called for making improvements to the upper two miles but leaving it gravel.
The dual-surface piece "seems to be a no-brainer," Commissioner Rob Ittner agreed.
Trail users would continue to travel on about two miles of gravel, but commissioners suggested giving that experience a try for a season or two before doing anything more. Drainage and surface improvements would be made to the gravel piece that remains, but debris will continue to erode down onto the trail in the area where it traverses a shale bluff, commissioners were told.
The bridge option would provide an alternate route to the gravel piece. It would take upvalley trail commuters over the river at a point about a half-mile north, or downvalley, of the Aspen Business Center and onto a new trail that would link into the center. From there, they could connect with Aspen's paved bike-trail system to reach town.
"I'd like to see that put off, quite frankly," Owsley said of the bridge.
A span similar to the Tiehack bridge across the Maroon Creek gorge has been discussed, but Child said he'd be hesitant to cross such a bridge over the Roaring Fork if it was built.
"There would be no way I'd go across that bridge. It would be such a scary experience," he said. "It would be such a long bridge, and it would be so high up."
The county's Open Space and Trails board of trustees recommended contracting for engineering and design work for the bridge this year; commissioners didn't address that proposal specifically. The two boards are scheduled to meet jointly on March 19, and the Rio Grande will be a topic of discussion.
The design work would be done in anticipation of seeking a Great Outdoors Colorado grant for trail construction in 2014, according to Dale Will, open space and trails director.
If the county goes ahead this year with construction of the dual-surface trail on the lower two miles, it won't be able to use the money it spends on the project as a match to leverage grant funds in future years, he said.
A paved trail that simply ends, feeding into gravel, also could frustrate some trail users, Will said. Currently, trail users heading upvalley encounter the gravel piece when they cross McLain Flats Road. Bicyclists who want to ride on pavement have the option of riding McLain Flats to bypass the gravel stretch.