Aspen elected officials want city to move faster on neighborhood traffic issues

As part of 2022 budget recommendations, Aspen City Council supports additional staff for engineering, community development departments to move forward on projects

Afternoon traffic around 1:30 p.m. is backed up as the exiting lanes merge into one in downtown Aspen on Friday, June 11, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

After months of complaining by residents in Aspen’s West End neighborhood about vehicle gridlock on Smuggler Street during afternoon rush hour, Aspen City Council has agreed to funding a traffic study to better understand vehicular movement that may lead to calming measures.

The study will consider a four-way stop sign at Fourth and Smuggler streets, as well as examine turning movements by cars, and pedestrian and bicycle activity, said City Engineer Trish Aragon during council’s Tuesday work session on the 2022 budget.

“Before a decision is made on the West End council will ask us what those impacts are,” she said, adding the $32,000 budget request includes ongoing engagement with the community. “What we hope to gain is understanding that if you do something in the West End how will that affect Main Street, how will that affect other streets like Francis, or Seventh Street or Eighth Street?”

Council members said they were concerned that by doing a full-fledged study it will delay action, and they want to move forward with improvements quickly.

Councilman John Doyle suggested that the city put a four-way stop at Smuggler and Fourth streets as a starting point.

“Can’t we just throw the West End people a bone?” he said. “They did vote us in to get stuff done.”

Mayor Torre said while the number of vehicles going through the neighborhood as an alternative to congested Main Street has decreased now that offseason has arrived it won’t last long.

“Once we start those days we’re going to start having the neighborhood in here again and asking us why we haven’t done anything,” he said, adding that he supports some of the recent suggestions made by residents, including promoting a “Stay on Main” campaign.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said perhaps the four-way stop could serve as a “living lab” as opposed to a study.

“Let them see and feel and all of their neighbors see and feel what the potential impacts are, for good or for ill, before having to tell them that nothing is really going to happen until summer of 2023,” she said.

Richards expressed the same kind of sentiment when it comes to the planned improvements on heavily used Park Avenue, which includes a sidewalk on the east side, along with a realignment of the road where it’s the narrowest.

But the project is not budgeted until 2023, which prompted Richards to ask for a placeholder in the capital asset management plan in 2022 for engineering.

“I would really like to see these things advancing more quickly and the commitment well known,” she said. “I don’t want to find ourselves at the council table constrained next year or (the engineering department) constrained in the amount of work you are doing because of what is allocated, and that’s really a concern for me because I think these are issues that are really bothering people on a day-to-day basis and is irritating them.”

City Finance Director Pete Strecker said the challenge is the amount of internal staff time for a growing number of projects, and the availability of external or contract workers during a time when there is a national labor shortage.

“I’m a little less concerned about the monetary aspect of a placeholder,” he said, “we can certainly bring that to you at a moment’s notice.”

Richards and her fellow council members said they would support finding additional staff for the engineering and community development departments.

“I want to see these projects completed,” Councilman Ward Hauenstein said.

Improvements to Park Avenue have been discussed since the mid-2000s and more recently by the current council since 2019.

“I think the expectations from our community for quicker responses are growing, especially in some of these problem areas that we and prior council’s have been working on before,” Richards said.

City Manager Sara Ott said she perceived council’s discussion as a philosophical one outside of the specific request as part of the engineering department’s 2022 budget recommendations.

“I generally do not do placeholder budgets because, particularly in a community of ours that has the resources, so it is not an issue to make appropriations to deliver things, it’s not slowing us down from delivering services,” she said. “What’s critical to this timeline certainly is financial resources and the capacity of other contract labor but also some agreement on what is the process for decision-making on these because I believe that is something that is slowing down the delivery of some of these capital projects to neighborhoods and that process needs to be refined and articulate in moving forward.”