Aspen area officials hear about possible light rail route |

Aspen area officials hear about possible light rail route

Traffic chokes the S-curves at the Entrance to Aspen in this file photo. Area elected officials heard Thursday about possible dedicated rail and bus routes that would by-pass the bottleneck.
Aspen Times file |

The first bits of information from a recently authorized, nearly $500,000 study of the Entrance to Aspen were presented to area elected officials last week, with the chief focus on the particulars of a light-rail system.

Thursday’s presentation to elected board members from Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village centered mainly on the route of a potential light-rail system from the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 into downtown Aspen. The use of buses also is being considered, though that topic was not nearly as large a part of the discussion.

The Entrance to Aspen is a decades-long debate about how to alleviate bottleneck traffic jams along the S-curves on Aspen’s westside as Highway 82 winds its way into town. The issue has been the subject of 27 votes in the city and county during the past 40 years.

On Thursday, former Colorado Department of Transportation official and current consultant Ralph Trapani said construction costs of the 6-mile rail line between Brush Creek and Aspen have not yet been worked out but should be available in the spring. But he didn’t sugarcoat the future price tag.

“I’m not going to mince words here,” Tranpani told members of the Elected Officials Transportation Committee. “Light rail will be an expensive option.”

Decisions involving the light-rail route will focus on four main areas, according to the presentation. Those include how to appropriately route a train through the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82, how to navigate a train through the roundabout west of town, how to navigate the issues surrounding the so-called “preferred alternative” that bypasses the S-curves and routes train, bus and car traffic across the Marolt Open Space and, finally, where the train might terminate in Aspen.

The train would stop a total of seven times on the way into and out of town, including Brush Creek, the airport, Buttermilk Mountain, Truscott, the roundabout at Maroon Creek and Castle Creek, Seventh and Main Street and two possible termination spots in Aspen. The ride would take 14 minutes each way, Trapani said.

With light rail, bus traffic into Aspen — that is daily bus trips across the Castle Creek Bridge — will decrease, according to the presentation. For example, of the current 752 daily bus trips across that bridge, 458 of them would be “intercepted” by a light-rail train.

Brush Creek and 82

The Brush Creek and 82 intersection is the first piece of the puzzle. That location might feature a train that crosses the highway at grade just east of the intersection, in conjunction with a green light signal for cars turning onto the highway from Brush Creek. Alternatively, officials could choose to route the train under the highway through an 800-foot tunnel, a more expensive option that would not interfere with traffic.

Depending on the option chosen, the train station at the Brush Creek Intercept Lot could be above grade, at grade or below grade.

Whatever the case, the train would cross from the train station at Brush Creek to the south side of Highway 82 and remain on that side of the road for the duration of the route into Aspen, according to the presentation.

The train would likely then travel across a viaduct through Shale Bluffs and later cross Owl Creek Road at grade. At the airport, officials must decide whether to route the train to the terminal or to the current bus stop location along Highway 82. The latter choice would require building a connecting walkway between the terminal and the train/bus stop, according to Trapani’s presentation.

The light-rail route would utilize the old Maroon Creek Bridge across that chasm.

The “preferred alternative”

The next major issue will be the route through the roundabout. The problems are essentially the same as with the Brush Creek intersection: Either build an expensive, 250-foot tunnel under the south side of the roundabout or route the train at grade across the Maroon Creek and Castle road intersections and disrupt traffic.

The third major issue with the light-rail line is likely the thorniest. It essentially eliminates the S-curves by routing car, bus and train traffic across the Marolt Open Space to West Main Street.

Known as both the “preferred alternative” and the “modified direct” route, it would feature a 400-foot tunnel in the middle of the open space section just before it crosses the Castle Creek Bridge, according to the presentation. The current section of Highway 82 between Cemetery Lane and the spot where the road would veer into the open space would revert to open space, providing a bridge between the golf course and the Marolt land.

This route has been debated, voted on and pondered for decades. It is the route approved by the 1998 Record of Decision, which called for two traffic lanes and a dedicated light-rail or bus corridor, and it underlies all options presented at the Elected Officials Transportation Committee meeting.

Aspen voters approved the Marolt Open Space route with two traffic lanes and a light-rail corridor 59 percent to 41 percent in November 1996. Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards, a former Aspen mayor, said she believes the Marolt Open Space alternative featuring a light-rail corridor could be built without another poll of Aspen voters.

However, if area elected officials decline light rail and decide to go with dedicated bus lanes across Marolt instead, that would require approval by Aspen voters, Richards said. Voters expressly turned down that idea 54 percent to 46 percent in May 2001.

Voters in Aspen and Pitkin County chose the S-curves over the Marolt route in a nonbinding vote in November 2002.

Last week’s presentation also envisioned routing buses across the Marolt Open Space if that is what elected officials decide to do.

Last stop, downtown Aspen

Finally, the last piece of the light-rail line puzzle is where it would end in town.

The first option envisions the train coming into town on the southside of Main Street, then turning right onto Monarch Street, heading south four blocks to Durant Street, hanging a left and stopping two blocks to the east at Rubey Park.

The second option calls for the train to continue east on Main Street and end at a terminus station built in front of the gas station at Local’s Corner. Under this option, Galena Street would be transformed into a pedestrian walkway and transit connector between the train station at Galena and Main streets and Rubey Park, according to Tranpani’s presentation.

Elected officials have made no decisions about what might happen with these options. The next Elected Officials Transportation Committee meeting in March or April will feature much more information as Trapani and other consultants from the Parsons Corp., an international design, construction and project management firm, continue to work on the so-called “Upper Valley Mobility Study.”

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