Aspen candidates mull citizen’s proposal to open bus lanes to all vehicles | AspenTimes.com

Aspen candidates mull citizen’s proposal to open bus lanes to all vehicles

This file photo shows traffic backed up before the S-curves on westbound Main Street in Aspen. An Aspen resident's idea to open the downvalley bus lanes to all vehicles from the roundabout to Buttermilk, on an experimental basis, has gained traction with some City Council candidates, while elected officials have been less receptive.

The Entrance to Aspen subject is one that has reared its head in political discussions for a good 40 years, but what about the exit from Aspen?

Aspen resident Jay Maytin at a Jan. 19 meeting of the Elected Officials Transportation Committee asked the upper valley's political leaders if they would consider opening the designated bus lane to all vehicles on Highway 82 from the roundabout to Buttermilk during the afternoon rush-hour commute out of Aspen. Maytin posed that it could be done on an experimental basis during a busy summer week.

Maytin's idea was met with resistance from officials at the meeting, but candidates for Aspen City Council and mayor appear to be more willing to consider the experiment.

Maytin's theory, partly based on discussions he said he had with engineers, is that opening the lane to all motorists would help alleviate westbound traffic during the afternoon commute, which oftentimes is gridlocked and the constant source of frustration among motorists headed downvalley.

"Nothing is happening," Maytin said at the time. "Nobody is doing anything. Why wouldn't we try it?"

Not so fast, responded some of those on the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, which is comprised of elected representatives from Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village.

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Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards and John Krueger, who is Aspen's transportation director, said converting the bus lane to an all-traffic lane could compromise federal highway funding, even on an experimental basis. Krueger called it a "pretty doubtful experiment."

The bus-rapid-transit lanes, which are managed by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, stretch along both sides of Highway 82 between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. They debuted in September 2013 and have nine stops.

The lanes are the product of the approval of voters from Aspen to New Castle, who in 2008 agreed to an 0.04 percent tax increase and bonding authority, which resulted in a Federal Transportation Administration grant of $25 million for the $46 million bus-rapid-transit project.

Richards added that converting the bus lanes to all vehicles, even on a trial basis, would require a public vote. That's because Aspen's electorate in May 2007 authorized use of open space for exclusive bus lanes.

The 1998 Record of Decision, a report on the Entrance to Aspen issued by the Colorado Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, also precludes such an experiment, Richards and Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said at the time.

Candidates weigh in

With Aspen's mail-ballot election coming to a close May 2, The Aspen Times asked the candidates for the two open seats on City Council, currently held by incumbents Art Daily and Ann Mullins, how they would address doing an experimental program in the bus lanes. The opinions of the mayoral candidates also were sought.

Their responses, which were issued via email, are published in order by alphabetization of the candidates' last names.

Art Daily: "I think that before the council considers the rush-hour bus lane experiment suggested by the resident, an introductory cost/benefit analysis should be performed on the proposal. As I understand the matter, ultimately this would be an EOTC decision. I think these lanes were originally funded and intended as HOV bus lanes, hence the facts surrounding the establishment of the lanes would need to be studied and understood. We certainly don't want to put that funding at risk in any way. The potential impacts of the contemplated shift in the rush-hour use of the bus lane would also need to be considered. If auto traffic along this brief highway section were speeded up by the change, might bus use be discouraged to some degree?"

Ward Hauenstein: "Firstly I applaud the effort of a citizen to come forward in a public meeting with ideas. This engagement should be encouraged. It is interesting to see the reaction of elected officials. The first reaction was to be defensive and come up with reasons why it cannot be done and will not work. Immediately government is resisting citizen input and engagement. My first reaction would be to thank Jay (Maytin) for the suggestion. Jay, in his statement, acknowledged that there would be obstacles, but he wanted to try something. In concept I do agree with the experiment. I believe that there is no single big solution to the Entrance to Aspen. Every small fix helps. With enough small fixes, we may just solve this monster. A death by a thousand cuts in reverse. I suspect that the chokepoint is the S-curves and the Castle Creek bridge. But we will not know unless we give it a shot. If it works and it helps, the next step would to be to address all the objections the elected officials bombed Jay with. If it does no good, at least government was receptive to input, gave it a try and learned from the living lab."

Skippy Mesirow: "I would support experimenting with alternative uses for the outbound bus lane. This experimentation must be tied to our goal of creating a valleywide transportation system that residents and visitors would utilize on a daily basis that gets cars off the road. For this reason, I would consider allowing HOV (three-plus passengers) and ride-share operators for a dedicated, limited period of time. I would use this opportunity to concurrently test a public-private partnership in ride-share that if successful could be expanded upon. I suspect, however, that this lane is not the critical factor in our congestion. However, this program would allow us the opportunity to objectively test that intuition. During the test, I would recommend that we track total car traffic, total passenger volume, passengers per vehicle and average transit time from Aspen's core to the airport. Such research could inform the foundation for establishing best practices as we move into the future. I also believe that this could legally be tested."

Ann Mullins: "I am not opposed to experimenting with traffic flow into or out of town, but whatever the experiment is, we will still be left with the current bottlenecks at Castle Creek Bridge and the roundabout. The bigger challenge is that if we experiment and find a successful solution — how great would that be? — we would need to amend the approvals of the past (the Record of Decision) or start over with a new round of assessments and studies, from the federal, to the state, to the local level to seek approval for a new configuration, a process that would take several years and several million dollars. Again I am not opposed to a temporary experiment, but if successful, we would need to commit to a multi-year and multi-million dollar process to implement it."

Sue Tatem: "Yes, I had the same idea! That is to put some more vehicles into the bus lane. … More seriously, thinking about wildfire, I would like to find or create multiple ways into and out of town, even if not for everyday or only emergency use. These do not need to be superhighways, only some passages that could be crossed with vehicles all going one way. Some have suggested a 'tunnel' under the Marolt (Open Space), and I wonder if a tunnel would be a trap in a fire or could be made to be a temporary refuge. Transportation in and out of Aspen, getting in and parking were the No. 1 issues that voters told us about when I was knocking on doors with Lee (Mulcahy, mayoral candidate). I asked some officials and they all told me it wasn't possible to try new things, and that is terrible. Think different."

Torre: "I am open to any ideas that are as simple as a trial basis with no need for infrastructure builds. I do not know what governmental hurdles are prohibitive of this action but a little investigation and conversation may solve them. I am very supportive of the bus lanes and mass transit but this could have no negative effects on the efficiency of bus operations."

What the mayoral candidates Said

Lee Mulcahy: "This is exactly why we should throw the incumbent bums out. Those 'hurdles' are just obfuscations and smokescreens from our 'out of touch' local politicians. Why not try Jay's brilliant idea for a month — not just for a week? As Jay points out, democracy works best at the local level. It should be noted that HOV lanes satisfy all federal requirements for transit priority lanes.

Steve Skadron: Experimenting with the downvalley lanes as I understand it requires an updated (environmental impact statement), sign-off by (the Colorado Department of Transporation) and Federal Highway Administration, a vote on the use of city open space, and repayment of all or some of the county mass transit sales tax that was used to construct the lane in the first place. I support no plan that jeopardizes funding related to transit or that diminishes the advantages mass transit brings. I oppose incentivizing cars instead of transit which has the potential to cause worse traffic problems.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com