Aspen in 2021 saw one of its lowest car counts in decades, but why does it feel like local traffic is at breaking point?
Data reveals shifting traffic patterns entering and leaving Aspen
In the span of 27 years — 1975 to 2002 — Aspen and Pitkin County voters decided 26 ballot questions concerning traffic and transit at the entrance to the city. In the generation since then, debate has been relatively quiet about whether to build a new Highway 82 alignment over Castle Creek through the Marolt Open Space. In that time, the community embarked on tens of millions of dollars worth of projects that improved the existing highway while investing in expanded public transportation.
The central bargain in this most recent era of the entrance’s history is that such increased service via the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s first-in-the-nation rural “bus-rapid transit” system, along with other transit service and infrastructure improvements, has accommodated growth in the volume of locals, commuting workers and visitors moving throughout the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Between 2013, when BRT came on line, and 2019, this bargain appeared to be paying off, with total RFTA ridership numbers growing 32%, from about 4.14 million riders to approximately 5.47 million. Meanwhile, car counts at the entrance leveled off, reaching a peak in 2015 and seeing a downward trend since.
But beginning in the past two years, the expectation that transit will absorb growth has been put to the test. Although car counts at the entrance were relatively low last year, other factors help explain why 2021 saw perhaps the highest level of community angst about traffic in a generation.
Vehicle-counter data collected in 2021 by the city of Aspen of traffic coming and going through the entrance to Aspen along Highway 82 at Cemetery Lane show average daily traffic of 20,922 vehicles per day, which is the third lowest count in the past 20 years — but numbers were almost back on par with 2019.
However, RFTA ridership remains down 43% since 2019, after ticking up to about 3.12 million riders in 2021 from 2.67 million in 2020. Meanwhile, total entrance car counts in 2021 were just 0.8% below 2019, recapturing nearly all of 2020’s 10% drop.
“The past two years have been interesting in the fact that COVID’s impact was a bit unknown,” said Pete Rice, division manager at the city’s engineering department who leads many traffic and transportation projects. “On one hand, you have more people working from home, which could reduce the vehicle count, but on the other hand, you have less RFTA ridership due to the fear of COVID.”
Other factors also paint a picture of a changing landscape. These include evidence of traffic growth downvalley, surging residential construction, and higher occupancy rates in many second homes due to pandemic-induced shifts in residency patterns and the growth of the short-term rental market.
This increased focus on traffic and congestion moved the City Council last year to approve $150,000 in spending to reengage the public on a 24-year-old plan that would see a four-lane “straight shot” remake of Aspen’s entrance, with another $32,000 going toward studying traffic patterns and finding measures to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
Recently retired Aspen director of transportation John Krueger noted that two of the past four years have seen lower-than-usual traffic due to COVID shutdowns in 2020 and the six-month-long construction project in 2018 involving the Castle Creek Bridge, which detoured traffic away from the counters.
“When you have these low years and then things start to go back to normal in terms of counts, they feel worse,” Krueger wrote in a November email. “You also have people moving here during COVID when traffic was low with different expectations when things reopen and start to go back to normal.”
It’s worth noting that the city’s counter doesn’t tally cars and trucks driving on Power Plant Road, which has become the alternative route for commuters using McLain Flats Road and Aspen’s West End to bypass the heavy traffic on Highway 82 and Main Street.
A citizens group that formed last year began calling attention to what it termed an “emergency” of clogged traffic using the West End’s residential streets. According to representatives of the West End Pedestrian Safety Group, this traffic has been getting worse and is the source of significant safety and environmental impacts for the historic, residential neighborhood.
“The streets in the West End are not designed like Highway 82 and are not equipped to accommodate the volume of traffic they are experiencing on a daily basis,” Andrea Bryan, an attorney representing the West End safety group, wrote in an email. Especially for those in the vicinity of West Smuggler, the streets outside their homes become unusable for more than three hours each weekday, she said. A car struck a pedestrian last summer, Bryan said, “with many other close calls” in the neighborhood where pedestrians, cyclists and young children heading to one of the neighborhood’s multiple child care facilities are common.
“This is undoubtedly a true emergency, with actual safety and health dangers to the citizens of Aspen,” Bryan wrote. The West End Pedestrian Safety Group has collected about 100 signatures so far to a petition calling for the city to take action, according to Bryan.
A traffic consultant hired by the group last summer counted 1,100 vehicles using the West Smuggler Street/Power Plant Road alternate exit from 3 to 6 p.m. on June 9, which was a Wednesday. However, it is unknown if any car counts have been done before measuring the “West End sneak,” so there is little basis for comparison. In 2020, the city’s counter recorded an average of 6,169 vehicles on the highway in the 3 to 6 p.m. period.
“(Traffic coming in and out on Power Plant Road) is not a new phenomenon,” Krueger wrote. “Traffic has been doing this since 1999. … It may be getting experienced differently because of more people living in the West End full time now. There are also more rentals in the West End that require more servicing than in the past.”
The city and the Elected Officials Transportation Committee — composed of Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County representatives — have been working on adding five counters through the Highway 82 corridor and one on Power Plant Road to get an expanded view of where vehicles are moving and to help identify the best mitigation strategies, but a request for proposals released earlier this year has not attracted any bids. The city’s engineering department is currently working through the municipal supplemental appropriations process for the Power Plant Road counter, according to Rice.
Last month, the city installed a four-way-stop intersection at Smuggler and Fourth streets — where traffic on Smuggler previously did not have a stop sign — in an attempt to calm traffic.
Old Snowmass, new traffic records
The Colorado Department of Transportation car counter at Highway 82 and Snowmass Creek Road, located about 14 miles from the entrance to Aspen, recorded in 2021 its highest traffic count in the past two decades.
Last year’s daily average in Snowmass Canyon of 20,558 vehicles is still 1.6% below traffic measured at Aspen, but that gap, once much larger, has been closing — Aspen had 17% more traffic in 2017. The 2021 Old Snowmass count is up almost 3% from 2019, the previous record year, and is up 32% since 2013.
Those figures suggest more traffic is occurring throughout the upper valley, with more people using the Brush Creek Park and Ride to board a free RFTA bus for the final leg of their commute and, probably, more cars getting off the highway at Woody Creek to travel McClain Flats Road and Cemetery Lane. That alternate route avoids morning traffic backups that often begin at Buttermilk — and the city’s car counter.
The city has also made carpool passes available at the Brush Creek Park and Ride, which allow a car with multiple occupants to use the HOV-bus lane on Highway 82 and park for free at designated spots in Aspen.
The allure of such options, which allow drivers to steer clear of sitting in traffic and paying for parking, has had an impact, according to Rice, who noted that car counts at the entrance have been relatively consistent since the implementation of BRT.
Jason White, assistant planner for RFTA, agreed.
“I don’t even think about driving to Aspen because there are few options to physically park a car without paying $20 or more,” he said.
Real estate boom creates new traffic cycle
Total real estate sales set new records in Pitkin County in 2020 and again in 2021, thanks to buyers seeking more-rural, open spaces as an escape from the pandemic. Increasing investment in new development destined for the short-term-rental market has also turned up the heat.
“I think it might be fair to guess that there’s more part-time resident traffic in town (from what we used to have),” said Aspen City Council member Rachel Richards. “We used to have a lot of second homes that now have more permanent, year-round occupancy and a lot of second homes now have short-term rentals.”
A construction boom inevitably follows this uptick in real estate sales, Richards said.
Although the total number of construction-permit applications reviewed by the city of Aspen in 2021 was down to 1,157 from 1,291 in 2019, the proportion of applications for single-family homes increased to 48.2% from 26.8%, according to an analysis of building permit data. That means there were 212 more single-family home-permit applications last year than in 2019.
This has had an impact on a neighborhood such as West End.
“What’s generating the traffic is the enormous amount of construction activity,” said Howie Mallory, a longtime West End resident. “Construction traffic goes all day, much less than the traditional office commuter traffic, which tends to be 9 to 5.”
Upon completion of all that construction, more units are added to the short-term rental pool, which drives traffic changes in a number of ways, according to Michael Miracle, Aspen Skiing Co.’s director of community engagement. The short-term rental market creates a dispersed network of lodging across the valley that is not necessarily connected to transit, unlike traditional lodging facilities clustered in the downtown core and at the base of area ski resorts.
And there is a candle-burning-at-both-ends phenomenon when a property that once housed locals is redeveloped and participates in the short-term rental market. That adds cars to the highway because those workers now live farther away, while new homes, especially those in the short-term rental pool, create more demand for workers coming into town.
“You’ve displaced the workforce, but then it’s also driving it because you’ve created a whole new job sector taking care of these places,” Miracle said. “This residential sector is now a parallel economy.”
Entrance plan off the shelf
The city of Aspen is preparing to launch an outreach campaign on the so-called preferred alternative from a 1998 record of decision from the Colorado Department of Transportation, which lays out a plan approved by state and federal highway agencies for improvements to the entrance to Aspen.
The crux consists of one general traffic lane and one bus lane in each direction through the city-owned Marolt Open Space, bypassing the two-lane Castle Creek Bridge and S-curves to rejoin Main Street at Seventh Street. The new four-lane roadway would include the construction of a tunnel to run beneath a portion of the Marolt property and a new bridge across Castle Creek. City voters turned down this alternative in 2002, voting in favor of keeping the S-curves (city voter approval is needed to change the use of city-owned open space).
That capped off 26 votes going back to 1975 concerning transit and highway improvement projects decided by Aspen and Pitkin County voters. In 1996, city voters approved a new alignment through Marolt Open Space for light rail and a two-lane parkway for cars, but three years later, they voted down a bond measure to fund the project as support for a valleywide light-rail system failed to materialize.
Despite a long-held lack of consensus over what to do about the last half-mile or so of the entrance to Aspen, the 1998 record of decision was a major milestone in the area’s transportation history, as it outlined a much more far-reaching set of improvements to the Highway 82 corridor as it carries the public into Aspen.
The record of decision brought enough funding to update the bridge over Maroon Creek, from a 120-year-old two-lane structure to a bridge completed in 2008 with two lanes in each direction — one for general traffic, one for buses — and a separated pedestrian and bike passage. Dedicated bus lanes from Buttermilk to the roundabout, as well as the roundabout itself, are also products of the record of decision.
“If it were not for the elements of that record of decision that we have already put in place one by one, our traffic situation would be far worse than it is today,” Richards said.
The time is right to reengage the public on the record of decision, Richards said, noting that, given the two-lane choke point of the Castle Creek Bridge, evacuation of the town in case of an emergency could be challenging.
“Our community is a little transient by nature,” Richards said. “I think it’s really important to kind of reintroduce the concept and the challenges and what the real options are.”
Aspen Journalism covers local public data in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, visit http://www.aspenjournalism.org.