Dodging traffic | AspenTimes.com

Dodging traffic

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Editor’s note: For this election-oriented issue, we wanted an analysis of the candidates’ stances on Aspen’s most stubborn political issue. Brent Gardner-Smith has spent years debating the entrance as a reporter and planner. Here is his frank assessment of the candidates and their positions on transit.

Mass transit is once again an issue in this Aspen city election, but there are few, if any, serious proposals on the table to significantly improve the upvalley end of the system.

As candidate Rachel Richards put it, “I think the town is sick to death of talking about mass transit and the entrance.”

That may well be, but the fact remains that people who catch a bus to or from Aspen still end up in traffic jams trying to get to work or get home.

Many of those transit riders know full well that the state of Colorado has identified two solutions to the bottleneck – a dedicated light-rail or bus system across the Thomas-Marolt properties at the western edge of town.

And yet those riders – most of whom do not vote in Aspen – also know the opportunity for those transit improvements is stalled by Aspen’s inability to find a transit solution that fits its small-town self-image. It is also complicated by the state’s current budget situation.

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And this spring, due to burnout on the issue or fear of having any system cross the so-called “last quarter-mile” between the Maroon Creek roundabout and Main Street, few of the 11 candidates for mayor or City Council are willing to put forward a clear position on how to reduce congestion and significantly improve transit performance in and out of Aspen, short of making incremental improvements on the tight S-curves.

To be fair, the candidates’ views on potential transit solutions are not held in a vacuum. Most of them agonize over the fact that, in their minds, transit improvements across the Thomas and Marolt properties would degrade open space and potentially introduce an unrestricted four-lane highway into Aspen.

But several candidates seem willing to perform intellectual gymnastics in order to carve out pro-transit positions while insisting that transit service can be improved on the existing right of way.

Almost every expert who has seen the S-curves agrees it would be difficult – if not impossible – to build a dedicated transitway through the area, especially because the Castle Creek bridge has only two lanes.

For the worker on the bus, who just wants to get downvalley a little sooner, the circular arguments being presented this spring won’t be encouraging. In many instances, it comes down to this: The only solution candidates will accept is light rail, but most cite a long list of reasons why that won’t work either.

Lightening rail

For example, both Terry Paulson, who sits on council and is running for mayor, and Tom Peirce, who is running for the first time, argue that it is important for Aspen’s character to reduce the number of cars in town, to improve conditions for pedestrians and to reduce auto pollution.

But their emphasis is almost solely on reducing traffic, and not on providing a credible transit alternative that gives drivers a choice.

They both suggest more disincentives for those who drive into town, either by increasing paid-parking fees or creating a toll. And Peirce has suggested giving more incentives to people who car-pool, including perhaps subsidizing their fuel purchases.

Both agree that giving people a credible mass-transit alternative – one that may be more competitive with the private auto – would help reduce the number of cars entering and leaving town.

Most mass-transit planners say the best way to help transit compete is to put it on a separate, dedicated right of way. But that’s something Peirce and Paulson are reluctant to concede.

“I support the current entrance into Aspen,” Peirce said. “I always have. I’m not going to say that I would forever deny the possibility of having a straight shot for shuttles and coaches. That may be an option at some point. But I don’t want to get into where you have six lanes of traffic.”

Both candidates firmly oppose four lanes of pavement between the roundabout and Main Street to allow for two dedicated bus lanes. And while both say they might – under certain circumstances – support a light-rail system across the Thomas and Marolt properties, both waver on whether they would actually push to get light rail approved and funded.

“At one time I was a rail supporter,” Peirce said. “But that was six years ago. And then I started to lose confidence that it would serve our transit population well.”

For his part, Paulson is willing to support light rail, but is not ready to lead a fight for it.

“I think that is exactly where we need to go,” Paulson says of light rail. But then he’s quick to add, “But don’t use the words `light rail.’ I don’t want to be known as a light-rail advocate.” Instead, he’s opting for another, “sexier” alternative, such as a monorail on a different alignment than the one that has environmental clearance and support of both the state and federal governments.

Neither Paulson nor Peirce will commit to a specific and significant mass-transit improvement – such as a dedicated right of way in and out of Aspen – that they will fight for. And like many other candidates who favor the S-curves, they are quick to raise other hurdles when it comes to creating an efficient transit system.

Paulson, for example, points out that Main Street traffic jams every summer morning and afternoon are just a fact of life. “That’s called rush hour,” he said. “It happens everywhere around the world.”

Yet Paulson also argues that Aspen should be different, and better, than other places around the world. It’s odd to hear him defend traffic jams.

Peirce said he’s OK with more people in Aspen, but that he wants to see fewer vehicles. And he said he might favor a series of small shuttle buses to ferry people between a Buttermilk parking area and downtown Aspen, despite the fact that those shuttles could add to, and get caught in, the line of cars inching in and out of Aspen.

“This is not easy,” Peirce said when pressed. “I don’t have a solution.”

The entrance spectrum

Each candidate this spring has a unique take on the long-running debate about transit and the entrance to Aspen. But they can, at the risk of oversimplification, be placed at different points on a political continuum.

Assume for a moment that the left-hand side of the spectrum is defined by protecting the Thomas and Marolt properties at any cost, and that the right-hand side means advocating aggressively for four lanes of pavement across the land.

Paulson and Peirce might be the closest to the left, although they have a lot of company there.

For example, at one point this spring Paulson said he was against improving the 115-year-old, two-lane Maroon Creek bridge because it would increase the pressure to develop the Thomas-Marolt alignment.

Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud is also left-of-center when it comes to the entrance. A former member of the Friends of Marolt, a group that continues to fight the use of the Marolt property in court, Klanderud does not want to see transit improvements across the property.

And while she serves on the RFTA board, Klanderud thinks the focus on traffic jams in and out of Aspen is overblown. She is, however, willing to work on replacing the Maroon Creek bridge.

Just to her right are Cliff Weiss, who lives next door to the proposed Thomas-Marolt route, and Torre, who seems to share many of the same values as Paulson, although he is more upbeat about potentially making small-scale improvements to the bus system.

Both Weiss and Torre agree that the current transit system has bottlenecks that should be resolved so more people ride the bus and Torre wants to first find out if the S-curves can be modified to improve transit efficiency.

Weiss, for example, has proposed removing the sidewalks on the Castle Creek bridge to allow for a third lane of traffic – to be used for buses going one way in the morning and the opposite way in the afternoon.

However, Weiss is against spending $128 million to improve the valleywide bus system. RFTA is seeking funding for a “bus rapid transit” system that could lay a platform for an eventual valleywide rail system. It’s not entirely clear if Weiss is against the BRT because he thinks it is too expensive, or if he fears it would lead to eventual pressure to install bus lanes across the last quarter-mile.

But in regard to light rail, Weiss said he could “live with that off the back deck” but wonders whether a train would be financially feasible. “I am not anti-train,” he said. But neither is he leading a push for it as a solution.

The voters have spoken

Local talk-show host Andrew Kole, making his second bid for elected office, takes his cues from last fall’s vote on the entrance. Aspen and Pitkin County voters were asked in November whether they favored the S-curves or the “straight shot” across the Thomas-Marolt properties. By a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent, voters said they liked the S-curves.

“I think because of the S-curve vote, for the time being we have to live with what we have,” Kole said. “I would rather devote my energy to things that could actually be improved in my two years.”

But Kole does believe the Maroon Creek bridge needs to be replaced, and he thinks the Cemetery Lane intersection could be improved to speed traffic and improve transit efficiency. He also favors posting someone at the intersection to direct traffic.

The remaining five candidates – Tom McCabe, Rachel Richards, Lisa Markalunas, Pepper Gomes and Tony Hershey – are all more willing to discuss potential transit solutions over the Thomas and Marolt properties, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm and energy.

McCabe, for his part, is burnt out on the entrance after four years on City Council.

While he did vote to transfer the proposed alignment to the Colorado Department of Transportation, which has made him a prime target among S-curve supporters, he seems resigned to let the issue rest for a few years.

He supports replacing the Maroon Creek bridge and seeing what can be done to improve the efficiency of the S-curves, but beyond that he feels the time has come to leave the issue alone.

Just to McCabe’s right may be Rachel Richards, who has worked tirelessly in the past for transit improvements – either light rail or bus – across the Thomas and Marolt properties. But Richards is now being politically pragmatic in her run to get back on the council and is willing to let the alignment issue lie.

“We are going to use what we have now for the foreseeable future,” Richards said. “There is no clear mandate to use anything there [on the Thomas/Marolt]. I accept that. I understand that.”

Instead of fighting about the alignment, Richards says she wants to do what is possible in the short term.

“My number-one priority is working on replacing the Maroon Creek bridge,” she said. “We should replace it before it falls or before it is weight restricted.”

She also wants to purchase hybrid buses, which use alternative fuels, pollute less and make less noise than RFTA’s standard diesel buses (this position is shared by candidates across the spectrum).

Moreover, she said, we have to look at some different ways to give buses priority on the S-curves.

“Are there things we can improve for the bus rider within our bottleneck?” she asked.

A civil discussion?

Lisa Markalunas, in her first bid for the council, seems a bit more willing to continue exploring transit options such as light rail – which may reflect how few Entrance-to-Aspen meetings she has endured over the years.

She does not support the idea of two bus lanes and two regular lanes of traffic across the “last quarter-mile,” citing the frequently mentioned fear that the bus lanes could turn into unrestricted travel lanes.

But she does support a valleywide rail system at some point. In the short term, she concedes that bus riders are caught in both traffic and in the conflicting views of what is best for the community’s character.

“I have co-workers who ride the bus from downvalley every day,” said Markalunas, who lives and works in Aspen. “And there is no good answer now for the guy on the bus, although there has to be a better way of reducing time frames.”

She seems willing to take a fresh look at all the transit options, which scoots her more to the right on our Entrance-to-Aspen spectrum.

“I would just like to see us have discussions about all of our options with all the costs on the table,” she said. “You ought to be able to discuss this without building in all the emotion. I think we have to come to some resolution. Doing nothing is a decision, and we suffer with those consequences every day, especially the guy on the bus.”

Pepper Gomes is probably to the right of Markalunas on our entrance spectrum. While not necessarily a mass-transit proponent, he does take a straightforward and pragmatic view of the situation.

“If you build Burlingame, you can kiss your S-curves goodbye,” he said. If several hundred housing units are built behind the Maroon Creek Club as proposed, Gomes believes those residents will drive their cars into Aspen and further clog traffic in the S-curves, making a new alignment much more likely.

Finally, on the far end of the spectrum, is incumbent Councilman Tony Hershey, who, ironically, was first elected on an anti-rail platform.

Hershey still thinks rail is a long way out, but he has lobbied actively for federal funds to build RFTA’s bus rapid transit system. He also had no problem transferring the right of way across the Thomas-Marolt properties to CDOT last fall, and he wants to replace the Maroon Creek bridge in accordance with the Entrance-to-Aspen environmental impact study.

And today he seems willing to push for bus lanes across the property as an interim solution on the long journey to rail.

So Hershey, who started his career with an anti-mass-transit stance, is now perhaps the best hope for the guy on the bus, who just wants to get home from Aspen five to 10 minutes sooner.

Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com

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