Aspen in the summer signals a town defined by its traffic woes

While cars line up to get in and out of town each day, traffic levels are lower than the community’s 1993 goal

Cars wait at the light on Highway 82 and Cemetery Lane on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in Aspen. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

While traffic levels in Aspen may feel like they have hit fever pitch, the number of vehicles coming in and out of town over the Castle Creek Bridge this year is below the 1993 goal of a monthly average of 23,675 cars daily.

Year to date through July, traffic counts over the bridge are 11.4% lower than the 1993 goal, which was established in the final environmental impact statement for the Entrance to Aspen record of decision, according to John Krueger, the city’s director transportation.

The last time traffic levels exceeded the 1993 monthly count was in 2015, when the April threshold was 18,800 vehicles in a day and it turned out to be 19,163 that year.

The 1993 threshold for July is 28,600 vehicles daily, and this year the count was 25,844, according to a traffic analysis that Krueger provided to Aspen City Council earlier this month.

Counts over the bridge began in 1999, and over the years some months have been higher or lower than the 1993 levels, but the annual average has remained below the target, Krueger noted.

Traffic levels peaked in 2004 and 2005, exceeding the 1993 goals several months during that time frame.

Traffic volumes then declined for several years and took a big dip during the recession but began trending upward beginning in 2011 and then leveled off before peaking again and dropping significantly during COVID-19 last year.

Counts are trending upward in 2021 and are approaching the 2019 pre-COVID levels, Krueger noted.

Hourly counts in July at the S curves are well beyond the 700-car-an-hour capacity inbound and outbound for most of the day, which is resulting in congestion and delays.

A hint of a rainbow is seen over Castle Creek bridge on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in Aspen. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

“The S curves don’t handle that volume well, and the roundabout doesn’t handle that volume well,” Krueger said.

All of those counts, however, do not address the number of vehicles traveling on Power Plant Road, which for years has been a de facto route for commuters coming into Aspen from McLain Flats via Cemetery Lane, or leaving town, via residential streets in the West End neighborhood.

Krueger said the city has in the past done traffic counts on Power Plant Road for various reasons, but there has been no direction from top government officials to make it permanent.

The record of decision as it relates to the Entrance to Aspen specifically points to Highway 82 traffic counts, Krueger said, while acknowledging that it does not give the full picture of traffic levels in and out of town.

“It would be a good idea to put a counter (on Power Plant Road),” he said, adding he is working with the city’s engineering department in looking at tying Power Plant Road into a permanent counting system.

Pete Rice, division manager in the city’s engineering department, has been in talks in the past few months with a group of residents who live on Smuggler Street.

They have been pleading with city officials to enforce traffic laws and prevent the increasing number of motorists from using the residential street as their exit out of town during the afternoon rush hour.

Established as a nonprofit organization called the West End Pedestrian Safety Group, it has more than 25 members who are represented by attorney Andrea Bryan with Garfield & Hecht PC.

Over a dozen residents have made public comments in front of Aspen City Council this summer explaining their plight, which includes perceived unsafe conditions for their children, exhaust fumes and a general degradation of their quality of lives.

In a July 1 letter to council from Bryan, she wrote that a city official said that the city’s most recent traffic data for this area is at least four years old.

“Rather than wait for the city to update its traffic data, the safety group has taken it upon itself, at its own expense, to hire traffic consultant Chris Fasching, who is a principal of Felsburg, Holt & Ullevig, to gather this data independently,” Bryan’s letter reads. “The numbers are shocking: there are 2,216 vehicles traveling on West Smuggler Street daily on weekdays, and nearly 70% of that is westbound traffic.”

That was data collected June 9 on Smuggler Street, west of Eighth Street and accounts for a 24-hour period.

A RAFTA bus heads into town on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in Aspen. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

Between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., 1,040 westbound vehicles traveled on Smuggler on that day, according to the group’s data.

Rice said he plans to meet with representatives of the group this week, and in the past has explained to them that the city has taken measures over the years to alleviate traffic but to no avail.

“It’s a complex problem,” he said.

Two routes in the West End north of Main Street are dedicated pedestrian and bikeways — on Hallam Street and Lake Avenue — which limit vehicles from traveling more than one block by ordinance.

Smuggler Street has not been identified as a candidate for that type of designation under the city’s pedestrian and bicycle master plan, which considers that type of activity interacting with vehicles.

Both Hallam and Lake Avenue are routes to destinations like the Castle Creek Bridge and a larger trail system, as well as the Benedict Music Tent and Aspen Institute campus.

Likewise, Hopkins Avenue in the West End is dedicated as a pedestrian and bikeway because it connects to Seventh Street and the Marolt Open Space, where a larger trail system exists.

Rice and Krueger agree that more traffic data on Power Plant Road would help in any future decision making for the Entrance to Aspen, which has been a source of consternation for elected officials and commuters since the 1970s.

“Having 24,000, 25,000 cars a day coming in and out of town is a lot, and 300 to 400 an hour over the peak is a lot in a town of 7,000 registered voters,” Krueger said. “Collecting data is not going to reduce delays and traffic, but more data is always good for making decisions.”

City Councilwoman Rachel Richards responded to a group of West End residents at last week’s council meeting by summarizing two decades’ worth of Entrance to Aspen history, what the state’s record of decision allows for and the over two dozen public votes signaling a community that cannot reach consensus, not to mention all of the alternative transportation options provided for commuters to reduce traffic.

“I’m as frustrated as anyone else,” she said. “The traffic is ruining the town.”


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