Are commuters the true problem?
February 15, 2007
Having just finished six weeks of daily commuting to Edwards, I can say with total certainty that Aspen has no “entrance” problem, any more than it has a “broken leg” problem. True, some people break their legs skiing, and a lot of people have a slow-traffic problem if they commute into town in the morning and out at night during the two-hour “rush hour.” But in both cases, they are self-inflicted problems … the result of decisions and choices with predictable consequences.Businessmen who would like to bring trainloads of low-cost labor from Silt or Rifle, or anywhere with lower living costs than Aspen, promote the idea that the community as a whole has an entrance problem – but the real problem is they don’t want to pay Aspen-resident wages. So, aside from businessmen (and women) and the out-of-town residents they hire, who has an “entrance” problem?There are a few people who must live downvalley and must commute into Aspen. Perhaps they should “commute” by video conferencing. Those city and county employees who chose to commute rather than pay the higher living cost in Aspen are not, in my opinion, worthy recipients of the dole or philanthropy. They made a cost vs. commuting-time lifestyle choice. Why should those of us who did not make that choice subsidize their travel costs? Should the Aspen Skiing Co. and the Little Nell Hotel get, in effect, taxpayer dollars to help keep their labor costs down?Should the citizens of Aspen feel so sorry for people who enjoy the lower living costs of being a commuter that we should subsidize their mass-transit travel in the hope that it will keep their cars off our streets? (In fact, less than 10 percent of commuters use mass transit.)We should take active steps to discourage the employment of commuters. I appreciate that some of them are former Aspen residents who are attracted to the lower costs and longer summers downvalley. Some are great people who once were part of the community’s fabric. I am sure that I depend on the skills of some of them for services that are important to me (like my haircuts). Some provide services that were once available in the city until they took their skills downvalley. But while their decision to be commuters may be good for them (although nearly all hate the process), and for those who employ them, it is not good for Aspen. No quantity of excuses or praise of their work alters that fact. There are dozens of things that can be done to discourage commuters and to spread their transportation demands throughout the workday to minimize peak-hour loads. Regrettably, no one wants to do or talk about this issue, perhaps because so many of us lust for low-wage or skilled workers not available in Aspen. The steps to reduce our commuter work force may increase business costs, and ultimately reduce commercial rents (which will happen only when there is vacant business space), so we can add landlords to those who will object to measures that may discourage the commuter workforce. There is the myth that without commuters, wages would go so high as to drive every business in town into bankruptcy. This is flat-out nonsense. There are many expensive, successful resorts that depend on a 100 percent resident workforce, as did Aspen in its glory years. The commuter problem is THE problem faced by the community. It is the S-curve problem, the bridge problem, the morning and evening traffic problem, much of the noise and air pollution problem and the parking problem, and yet we have spent millions and are planning to spend more to make it easier for commuters to get here so that they can be an ever larger part of our workforce. Part of the solution of the commuter problem is affordable housing for the resident workforce. But the other part is a cost-based discouragement (taxes) of the employment of commuters based on the amount by which they reduce local wages. Also, at the very minimum, we should be looking at ways to spread the traffic load to nonpeak hours. The city and county governments, instead of hiring consultants to advise us on trains, buses and highways, should hire consultants to tell us how we can cut down on the commuter component of our workforce. Except for the emphasis on affordable housing, our local government has focused only on ways to make the commuter problem worse, not less. So, of course, the problem has gotten worse. It is time for new thinking.Raymond Auger is a resident of Aspen. Editor’s note: Soapbox runs weekly on the Sunday opinion page. This spot is a forum for valley residents to comment on local topics. If you’d like to contribute, contact Naomi Havlen at The Aspen Times at 925-3414, ext. 17624 or e-mail email@example.com.
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