APD’s new traffic plan hinges on emergency trigger to use bus lane


A new police plan to empty Aspen streets of bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic involves converting the dedicated bus lane between the roundabout and Buttermilk into a regular traffic lane.

Water pools on the Maroon Creek Bridge after continual heavy rainfall in Aspen during a traffic-filled morning on Tuesday, August 3, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

However, the plan can only be implemented after police determine the situation to be an emergency because the terms that led to construction of the bus lanes require them to remain free of regular traffic in non-emergency situations, said Bill Linn, assistant Aspen police chief.

“Historically, there’s been lots of discussion about using the bus lane for traffic,” he said. “But it comes down to the fact that it’s built for a dedicated purpose and paid for with (money dedicated for public transportation) to use as a dedicated bus lane.”

Thanks to frequent closures of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon, traffic through Aspen and over Independence Pass — heading in both directions — seems to have been heavier than usual this summer.

“People haven’t experienced this kind of traffic and volume because it’s coming from different places, which adds to the downtown congestion,” said John Krueger, transportation director for the city of Aspen. “It probably feels worse because (Glenwood Canyon) is closed and people are coming from Independence Pass.”

He also said that in addition to an increase in visitors, a lot of new residents moved here during COVID-19 and are not as familiar with local roads and traffic patterns, which can slow the flow of vehicles in and out of town.

The latest idea to utilize the right-hand bus lane between the roundabout west of Aspen — when the road goes from one to two downvalley lanes — and Buttermilk — when cars can use the right-hand lane — came about through the frustrations of a veteran Aspen police officer, Linn said.

Officer Kirk Wheatley was directing traffic at the roundabout at one point during the third week of July, when traffic was backed up Independence Pass “practically to Leadville,” he said. Fed up with the congestion, Wheatley decided on his own to begin waving cars into the bus lane in an effort to relieve the jam. It worked.

Wheatley didn’t return a phone message seeking comment Friday.

Aspen police officials didn’t even know he’d done it until the next day but thought it was a good idea, Linn said. However, they knew the bus lane couldn’t be willy-nilly used as a traffic lane, so they consulted Aspen City Attorney Jim True.

That’s where the idea of using police powers under authority of an emergency came about, he said. Not only is the gridlock debilitating to the city, emergency vehicles might not be able to access certain areas during particularly heavy rush hours.

True confirmed Friday that when police properly determine an emergency situation, his opinion is that the bus lane between the roundabout and Buttermilk can be used to evacuate traffic from the city.

The police department’s plan, which has been implemented about four times so far this summer and twice in the past two weeks, is triggered when traffic on Main Street becomes backed up to Aspen Street, which runs along the eastside of Paepcke Park, Linn said. The spot was chosen because it’s the location where Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses access Main Street, and when buses can’t break through the idling traffic, it causes a cascading detrimental affect on traffic, he said.

“It also reduces the effectiveness of mass transit,” Linn said.

Another key to the new traffic plan strategy is the stoplight at Cemetery Lane. When traffic backs up, an officer stationed at the intersection forbids people from turning left into town, forcing them into westbound traffic, around the roundabout and back into Aspen, he said.

Essentially, police temporarily disable the Cemetery Lane light so traffic flows better, Linn said. The idea doesn’t sit well with some Cemetery Lane residents, but it is effective in keeping traffic moving, he said.

While APD has not done a traffic analysis of the plan, anecdotally it works, he said.

“From the perspective of officers on the street, it appears to make traffic move more smoothly and more quickly,” Linn said.

The dedicated bus lane between the roundabout and Buttermilk is tied to the 1998 record of decision about the Entrance to Aspen, said Brian Pettet, Pitkin County’s public works director. Under terms of that federal environmental analysis — which has never been implemented but would bypass the S-curve and reroute traffic across the Marolt Open Space and onto Main Street — the lanes must be dedicated for buses only, he said.

The lanes were built using federal, state and local funds dedicated to public transportation, Pettet said.

Aspen City Councilwoman Rachel Richards — a veteran of multiple terms on the Aspen City Council and the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners — also said the dedicated bus lane received the approval of voters.

“When we added the bus lanes next to the golf course, that did take a public vote to be able to use our public open space as the dedicated bus lanes, and that was approved in the year 2000,” Richards said at a City Council meeting last week. “We have the only HOV project ever created in the Western Slope and that was such an uproar with the state Department of Transportation that they never promoted the guy who did that work.”