Aspen endorses commuter rail with split vote
Not surprisingly, the Aspen City Council voted on Monday night to endorse a plan to build a commuter rail line between Glenwood Springs and the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82.
Even more predictable was the split in the vote – Mayor Rachel Richards and council members Jim Markalunas and Terry Paulson voting for rail, and council members Tony Hershey and Tom McCabe voting against it.
The vote puts Aspen formally and firmly on track with almost every other governmental jurisdiction in the Roaring Fork Valley in concluding that rail is the best alternative to the private automobile in solving the valley’s growing traffic congestion problems.
The only governmental entity that was not cited as favoring rail was the Garfield County Board of Commissioners, which has resisted the idea of a train for several years.
The vote came after more than an hour and a half of debate among the pro-rail and anti-rail forces in the room.
It began with a recitation of claims by Tom Newland, director of the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, which holds title to the old rail right of way on which the proposed commuter train would run.
Newland pointed out that, without some kind of innovative and comprehensive mass transit system, even after the expansion of Highway 82 to four lanes between Glenwood Springs and Aspen is completed, the movement of traffic will be “breaking down somewhere in the Snowmass Canyon area” by the year 2009.
Under questioning from McCabe, Newland said that either of the two mass transit systems currently being proposed for the valley – the train or a beefed-up bus system – would postpone that breakdown, possibly indefinitely, if sufficient traffic management techniques were put into place as well. That means auto disincentives in the towns, high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on the highway and other methods.
McCabe, however, suggested that the four-lane, even with a train, “will probably clog up pretty quickly,” and argued that the beefed-up bus system is the most cost effective way to deal with the traffic.
Hershey, injecting a measure of sarcasm into the proceedings, suggested another way to cut down on the number of cars on the highway.
“We could have the train cross the highway and physically knock the cars off,” he joked.
The council also heard from several members of the half-dozen or so task forces that studied the rail vs. bus issue for two years before concluding that the train was the best option, including one-time rail skeptic Bob Schiller of El Jebel.
He said that a lot of in-depth study and discussion overcame his two main doubts about rail. First, he said, because the rail line would work in concert with bus feeder lines, it would have as much flexibility as a bus system alone. Second, he said, the cost of a train system compares favorably with the idea of widening Highway 82 to six lanes in 10 or 20 years, or of four-laning River Road or some other parallel track up the valley, to handle the expected surge of traffic from further growth in the valley.
Others noted that the train would be just one facet of a “multimodal” transportation network that would include buses, cars and trucks, depending on an individual’s transportation needs.
Hershey and McCabe, however, held their ground.
“I remain unconvinced that rail is a viable financial solution for this small valley,” intoned Hershey. “It will never be built. In the American West the automobile is king. The race is over. The car has won.”
He said the local bus ridership proves the valley favors mass transit, but argued that the burden of added taxes to support the train’s operating costs would be insupportable.
Rail advocates, on the other hand, say a valleywide transportation district would levy taxes that would be kept low, in an area where tax rates have historically been relatively low.
McCabe agreed with Hershey, but added higher taxes might be a blessing in disguise.
“It may be an anti-growth measure,” he said, discouraging outsiders from buying property here. That could be “kind of cool, actually,” he said.
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In April, the W Aspen Townie Food Truck (formerly called the Bitsy Trailer) made its debut as a curbside addition to the hotel set up to feed first responders and locals during the hotel’s “Safer at Home” pause.