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A heightened commute into Aspen?

Courtesy Tramway EngineeringA conceptual design of the "Aspen Aerial," a gondola-based transportation system that would originate at Buttermilk and terminate at Rubey Park. The initial design included stations at the airport and at Truscott Place, but now only includes three loading points.
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ASPEN ” The latest solution to the long-debated Entrance to Aspen traffic problem involves an aerial connection between Buttermilk and Rubey Park.

Glenwood Springs-based Tramway Engineering is proposing the concept of the “Aspen Aerial,” a gondola-based transportation system that would be about 40 feet off the ground and run along Highway 82, cross the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys, cut over to the northern edge of Shadow Mountain and proceed to Rubey Park via Durant Avenue.

Chuck Peterson, president of Tramway Engineering, was invited by the Aspen City Council to participate in last week’s transportation open house to explain the project to the public.

The aerial connection concept was introduced last year by government critic Toni Kronberg, who initially envisioned a four-mountain gondola. But after many meetings and no interest by the Aspen Skiing Co., Peterson and transportation officials came up with a scaled-back version as a solution to get cars and buses off Highway 82 ” specifically the Castle Creek Bridge, which is the choke point for traffic coming into town.

Peterson said he has had difficulty convincing Aspen’s elected officials that it’s a worthy concept to consider. Kronberg has presented the aerial connection to council members at numerous public meetings, and has been dismissed repeatedly.

It wasn’t until recently that the council decided to let residents decide for themselves whether it’s an idea worth pursuing.

“[The open house] gave us some validity,” Peterson said, adding Kronberg’s dogged determination has created some roadblocks. “The problem with this project is that we are living under the ‘Toni factor,’ and she realizes it.”

Peterson said the aerial connection’s ultimate goal is to reduce vehicular and bus traffic coming into town.

“Instead of talking to death the entrance to Aspen, there is a logical solution,” Peterson said, adding for decades the public has debated how to realign Highway 82 to accommodate more vehicles. “There are only so many cars you can bring into town, and this project has big goals in addressing Aspen’s problems.”

Peterson has been meeting for months with officials from the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Skico, as well as planners with the city of Aspen and Pitkin County.

“So far nobody has said this is a crazy, harebrained idea,” Peterson said. “There are no obvious problems that they see.”

Now, he hopes to introduce the idea to the public to see if there is enough support to begin detailed plans for an aerial connection.

His company has done the initial planning work pro bono, which Peterson estimates to have cost about $60,000.

The gondola would link the core of Aspen with a transportation hub at Buttermilk, where a large parking structure would be built. The system is designed so that downvalley commuters would park their vehicles at the Buttermilk hub station and commute to downtown Aspen using the gondola.

The system would use eight-passenger gondola carriers to transport people about 2.3 miles and would have a capacity of 2,800 riders per hour in both directions. The ride from Buttermilk to Rubey Park would taken an estimated 13 minutes.

After departing the Buttermilk hub, the alignment would parallel Highway 82 and the Maroon Creek golf course until it crosses Maroon Creek. The gondola would cross Highway 82, and a turn station would be located at the roundabout passenger drop-off, where buses would funnel people from Cemetery Lane, and the Maroon and Castle creeks areas. Riders would load and unload from buses to the gondola there, Peterson said.

The buses that serve those areas would no longer go into town and would terminate at the Marolt angle station. Peterson said the transfer time there and at Buttermilk would be less than one minute.

The final leg would cross over Castle Creek in the area of the existing pedestrian bridge and then skirt the north edge of Shadow Mountain before traveling near Koch Park and three blocks down Durant Avenue to an elevated terminal at Rubey Park.

Peterson said the alignment is nearly perfect from a design perspective because it’s straight, the majority of the land is owned by the public, and very few structures would be affected. But that’s not to say that there won’t be some property owners affected.

“There are two pieces of private property that would be affected near the end of South Seventh Street,” states a report on the proposal. “The towers can be located to avoid the houses, but crossing over an established neighborhood will be controversial and will require an agreement between the land owners and the city.”

The cost of the project is about $25 million, which doesn’t include the Buttermilk parking structure or the terminal at Rubey Park. The estimated operating and maintenance cost for the Aspen Aerial is $2.8 million a year.

Peterson said the system would be operated by RFTA and maintained under a contract with the Skico. The cost of operating the system would be rolled into RFTA’s operations based on fares and other income, according to Peterson. He also said federal funding may be available.

Peterson’s company has been involved in developing the system at the Glenwood Caverns, as well as the Skittles and Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass, as well as other systems throughout the country.

Aerial transportation systems are used in Germany, Saudi Arabia, Columbia, Portugal and China. The most notable system in the United States is in Telluride, where people are transported between Mountain Village and the downtown area. The Telluride connection crosses up and over the ski area.

“This is an opportunity for Aspen, but right now it’s a concept,” Peterson said, adding once people fully understand the project and its goals, he hopes they see its benefits. “It’s not an easy concept and it’s a hard sell.

“We need the support of the city to see if there is feasibility for it.”

csack@aspentimes.com


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