A year ahead of schedule
After years of tackling engineering problems, wringing construction funds from budgets and dealing with political turmoil, the state is finally completing the expansion of Highway 82 to four lanes for most of the way between Glenwood Springs and Aspen.Unfortunately for the Colorado Department of Transportation, it might be the last mile or so into Aspen that sticks in the minds of commuters for years to come.The state’s work has reduced travel time for thousands of commuters and drastically improved safety, but problems like litigation, lack of funds and wavering political will make it uncertain if the four-lane expansion will ever be completed from Buttermilk Ski Area into Aspen.Don’t blame the uncertainty on lack of effort by CDOT. The transportation department has worked for the better part of 42 years to expand Highway 82. It plans a big celebration later this month to mark the completion of the expanded highway through Snowmass Canyon – one of the most technically challenging stretches.A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held Friday, Oct. 22, although the new downvalley-bound lanes won’t actually open until a couple of weeks later, in November, according to Joe Elsen, chief engineer for the Highway 82 corridor. Rainy weather in September wiped out expectations that the work would be completed in October, he said.The completion of Snowmass Canyon is a milestone for CDOT. It spent $100 million on just 3.5 miles – half the total spent on the 15.3-mile Basalt-to-Buttermilk stretch. The project was expensive and time-consuming, explained Elsen, because of steep slopes and constricted space.To complete the Highway 82 job, CDOT recruited some of its best engineers and consultants from the politically and environmentally sensitive expansion of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon. “They would repeatedly say this was tougher than Glenwood Canyon,” Elsen said.
So Snowmass Canyon is a fitting end to a serious engineering challenge. 42 years in the makingThe Colorado Highway Commission voted in 1911 to create Highway 82 and add it to the state’s road network. A 4-mile stretch of the dusty path connecting the sleepy towns of the Roaring Fork Valley was paved outside Glenwood Springs in 1937. The rest of the road was oiled all the way to Aspen the following year, according to CDOT’s records.Over the years, the state paved the road and by 1962 had approved expanding the highway to four lanes between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, then a bustling coal-mining and ranching town. That project lasted 12 years until 1974.After about a decade of inactivity, tied in part to the outcry against the four-lane in Pitkin County, the transportation department geared up for construction again in the mid-1980s. By 1995, the road was four lanes to the eastern stoplight on the Basalt Bypass.When work was completed on that stretch, CDOT started the Basalt-to-Buttermilk phase. The department saved the hardest for last. Construction started in Snowmass Canyon in fall 2000 and was supposed to be completed by the contractor, Ames Construction, by fall 2005. Ames will earn a $500,000 bonus for completing the work one year ahead of schedule, officials said.The completion of the project – aside from the final stretch into Aspen – is significant to state transportation officials because Highway 82 is one of 28 “strategic corridors” in Colorado, according to Elsen. Those priority corridors include roads in both the federal and state highway systems in need of expansion or major improvements.
Shedding a nasty imageThe completion of four lanes to Buttermilk is expected to save lives, make public transit more enticing and perhaps even make the drive more palatable for private vehicles.CDOT traffic engineer Jim Nall said the expansion will reduce the head-on collisions that earned the highway the name “Killer 82.” The old highway was often a white-knuckle express during heavy traffic in winter conditions. Accidents were especially common in the Shale Bluffs curves and Snowmass Canyon.”What we’re doing is trading off the more severe accidents for less severe accidents,” said Nall.Capt. Barry Bratt, who oversees the Colorado State Patrol in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, said expansion to four lanes gives drivers more time to react and correct mistakes. That helps reduce head-on crashes.The number of accidents due to tailgating, which is common on two-lane roads, should drop, said Bratt. And with major construction finished, fewer inattentive drivers will rear-end other cars because of construction slowdowns.”I think we’ll just see fewer accidents, period,” said Bratt.
The troopers do anticipate that speeds will increase once the four-lane is completed. Bratt said they plan a heavy presence when Snowmass Canyon opens to four lanes, just to remind people to keep their speeds in check.The curse of ‘Bottlemilk’How the completion of Snowmass Canyon affects commuting and commuters is anyone’s guess at this point, said Nall.There are two theories about what’s going to happen. One is called the “Hurry Up and Wait” theory. That assumes traffic congestion will grow and reach epic proportions during morning rush hour at the Buttermilk stoplight, where two Aspen-bound lanes funnel into one.Traffic already backs up at Buttermilk around 8 a.m. for single-occupant vehicles, which are required to stay in the left lane. Some people derisively refer to the bottleneck as “Bottlemilk” or the “Butterneck,” due to the congestion.Buses and vehicles with two-or-more passengers are allowed to use the High Occupancy Vehicle lane on the right from Basalt to Buttermilk.Once Snowmass Canyon is completed, a four-lane to two-lane bottleneck at the Snowmass Conoco station will disappear. Traffic will also flow more smoothly through the canyon because flaggers won’t be slowing vehicles. As a result, some observers feel faster-flowing traffic will bunch up more quickly at Buttermilk.
The other theory is called “One Delay is Better Than Two.” Some observers feel the commute will be shorter because the Old Snowmass bottleneck will be eliminated. Yes, Bottlemilk will be a burden, but it will be the only burden.Nall won’t hazard a guess. “Traffic patterns are going to change,” he said. “Habits are going to change. People will adjust their patterns.”For example, if the Buttermilk bottleneck is unbearable at 8:15 a.m., commuters will leave slightly earlier or slightly later to avoid it, Nall said. Typically after an improvement like the completion of Snowmass Canyon, it takes two or three months for traffic patterns to settle, he said.Will buses keep their advantage?The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which operates the valley’s bus system, doesn’t expect riders to jump ship and take to their cars. RFTA Executive Director Dan Blankenship said his buses will maintain their advantage.”The opening of Snowmass Canyon will be a net positive for mass transit,” he said.Blankenship reasoned that construction-related traffic delays hurt the agency in a couple of ways. First, if delays knock a Basalt-to-Aspen bus off schedule, then the agency must have vehicles on standby to pick up passengers in Aspen.
In addition, if buses cannot deliver passengers at advertised times, it loses those passengers to their cars, Blankenship said.So he welcomes the end of construction in Snowmass Canyon. He believes that the bottleneck at Buttermilk will grow, so mass transit will maintain its allure.Although the HOV lane on Highway 82 ends at Buttermilk, buses have special permission to use the right shoulder where possible between Buttermilk and Aspen. Buses must merge into the one lane of Aspen-bound traffic before the Castle Creek Bridge and they must use one of the regular lanes at the roundabout west of town. Otherwise, they can sail past any stop-and-go morning traffic.That saves about 10 minutes on the trip into town, Blankenship estimated. “It’s a powerful marketing tool for us to have people see those lights on the buses [zipping by],” said Blankenship.During the fall offseason, a prime-time commuter “express bus” to Aspen, which makes a minimal number of stops in between, leaves downtown Basalt at 8:09 a.m. It makes it to the Buttermilk stoplight at 8:32 and arrives at Paepcke Park, one of the main stops, at 8:43 a.m. The 16-mile trip takes about 34 minutes.Drivers of private vehicles also have the disadvantage of having to search for parking in Aspen, Blankenship noted.Stuck in their ways
The completion of the highway apparently won’t change the habits of many commuters, whether they drive or take the bus. A small, informal poll of bus riders heading downvalley from the Rubey Park bus station in Aspen one day last week showed they intended to stay on the bus after the new highway is complete. One rider said he couldn’t afford the gas required to drive every day between Glenwood Springs and Aspen. Another said she didn’t want to give up the luxury of reading a couple of novels per week during the commute.Jim Reser, who has commuted between Carbondale and Aspen since the late 1950s, isn’t about to surrender his car for the bus. Part of the reason is necessity – as a surveyor, he often needs the tools of his trade and his car to reach far-flung job sites. But even if he could take the bus, he wouldn’t.”The buses, I always hated,” Reser said. “I just hated them and I continue to hate them.” To Reser, buses are just another symbol of the valley’s growth and urbanization.Reser has adjusted to changes in the commute over the years and usually just sat back and enjoyed the drive. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the winter commute often took 45 minutes to an hour, because beefy snow tires didn’t exist and highway conditions were often poor, he said.”I think it’s a lot safer trip and probably a quicker one, too,” said Reser. But it will always have its mysteries. One day he can leave Carbondale and sail into Aspen without a problem. The next day he can leave at the same time and hit massive congestion. “You never know,” he said.Reser suspects the four-lane through Snowmass Canyon will shave off time for commuters going to Snowmass Village, the Airport Business Center and the airport – any destination west of Buttermilk. But for traffic heading into Aspen, he doubts it will make a difference.
Aspen and CDOT officials hope the expanded highway doesn’t create a “build it and they will come” situation. The state agreed when it settled on a final plan for the Basalt-to-Buttermilk project that it would try to maintain traffic at 1993-94 levels even after the expansion to four lanes was complete. That’s why the HOV lane exists – to get people to share rides in private vehicles or take the bus.If traffic exceeds those historical average-daily-vehicle counts, between 23,000 and 24,000 vehicles going in and out of Aspen, then the state must seek ways to enhance mass transit.”We’re pretty close to the 1993-94 levels, but we haven’t exceeded them,” said John Krueger, Aspen’s director of transportation.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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A vehicle skidded off Frying Pan Road and into Ruedi Reservoir Monday morning. The car occupants were unharmed but the car had to be fished out, according to the Colorado State Patrol.