A legislative blow to the Bridge? | AspenTimes.com

A legislative blow to the Bridge?

Eben Harrell

Efforts to secure funds for a new Maroon Creek bridge took a potential hit Monday when it was announced that Rep. Scott McInnis is attempting to skim money off the top of CDOT’s regional budget for a project in Glenwood Springs.

McInnis has proposed a rider to a federal transportation bill that would designate money for the proposed South bridge, which would cross the Roaring Fork River to the Four Mile area in Glenwood Springs.

Representatives from the Intermountain Transportation Planning Region, which includes Aspen and Glenwood Springs, oppose McInnis’ proposal, saying it circumvents years of regional planning for the whims of one Washington politician.

But a former Glenwood Springs mayor believes the money to be a godsend for a town in constant danger of wildfires.

A spokesman for McInnis called the rider “a truimph” for the Western Slope, which he said is notoriously underfunded by CDOT. The spokesman said McInnis believes the bridge would offer an additional exit route for residents of South Glenwood in case of wildfire, especially for crises such as the 2002 Coal Seam Fire.

If the bill goes through with the rider, it would cost the Maroon Creek replacement project millions, Pitkin county officials claim. Without McInnis’ rider, the Maroon Creek bridge replacement would receive $10 million, but only $3.5 million if the bill passes.

Every five years, the Colorado Department of Transportation prioritizes construction projects statewide. In Aspen’s region, which includes Summit, Lake, Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties, the Maroon Creek bridge was given top billing. The 118-year-old bridge has long been considered one of the shakiest in the state highway system.

Inspectors discovered last October that the abutment holding up the downvalley end of the span was crumbling, prompting them to close the bridge to heavy trucks while repairs were completed.

Planning for a new Maroon Creek bridge has been in the works for years – local officials recently spent $1.5 million to draft engineering plans.

To the chagrin of Aspen’s officials, McInnis’ rider would jump the Glenwood bridge to the top of CDOT’s list. But former Glenwood Mayor Don Vanderhoof said CDOT’s list prioritizes on the basis of traffic needs, ignoring the importance of emergency access.

Asked why CDOT has not prioritized the South bridge, Vanderhoof responded, “[CDOTs] goal in life is to move traffic, not save lives. It’s not their charge to provide emergency access. That’s why McInnis’ money is so important.”

Aspen’s transportation region, which includes Garfield County, will send a letter asking McInnis to repeal the rider. Pitkin County commissioners will also send a letter of protest.

“It’s incredibly frustrating for everyone involved in such an extensive planning process to be pushed out because of one individual’s whims,” said Brian Pettet, Pitkin County director of public works. “This bridge is what’s called an ‘off-system’ project – it’s away from state roads – meaning it traditionally wouldn’t even be eligible for such a lionshare of CDOT funds.”

Blair Jones, McInnis’ press spokesman, said that the McInnis’ rider came from personal observations made by the U.S. representative during the Coal Seam Fire.

“This rider started when McInnis stood on the steps in Glenwood and watched the fire burn,” Jones said. “This is a health and safety matter. People need an escape route. Just to rely on luck is not acceptable.”

Pettet noted that a new Maroon Creek bridge would cost $23.5 million, so even it received full CDOT funding, officials are far from securing enough money to break ground.

“Still, everything helps, especially when we’re talking millions of dollars,” he said.

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com