Aspen: Let’s make a deal for Highlands, Five Trees transit | AspenTimes.com

Aspen: Let’s make a deal for Highlands, Five Trees transit

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

With Aspen hurting for dollars to run its bus system and two residential developments facing costly requirements to run their own bus service, the city is willing to make a deal.

In essence, the city has suggested it might let Five Trees and Aspen Highlands Village off the hook for the pricey dial-a-ride bus service called for in their subdivision improvement agreements. The city might be willing to make an exchange for additional funding for a standard city bus serving the Maroon Creek Road corridor, where both developments are located.

While further negotiations are scheduled this week, one city official recently described the two sides as ?at loggerheads.?

The issue dates back to the mid-1990s, when plans for Five Trees and Highlands Village were before Pitkin County commissioners. Various transportation-related requirements were built into the approvals for both developments, which were later annexed to the city. The goal was reducing auto traffic on Maroon Creek Road that might result from the new residential enclaves and maintaining air quality in the Maroon Creek Valley, which leads to the Maroon Bells.

The transportation plan called for dial-a-ride shuttle service to the doors of homeowners in both developments, seven days a week, providing service to both downtown Aspen and the airport.

Current estimates put the cost of the operation at between $400,000 and $600,000 a year ? about double what was projected when the plan was formulated in the mid-?90s, according to Gary Beach, manager for the Highlands Village and Five Trees metropolitan districts, which tax homeowners to pay for various services.

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?We never anticipated this level of cost,? Beach said.

With the near completion of Highlands Village, the bus service was to be implemented in June. Instead, both subdivisions continue to use High Mountain Taxi to provide dial-a-ride service to homeowners, which is paid through the metro district taxes.

The demand for a full-fledged, dial-a-ride bus service, based on use of the taxi service, doesn?t appear to exist, according to David Norden, project manager at Highlands Village.

?Where dial-a-ride will end up is unknown at this time,? he said. ?My belief is there should be a demand-based system.?

City officials don?t appear anxious to initiate a land-use enforcement action to force the issue. Conditions in the Maroon Creek corridor have changed since the transportation plan for the two developments was first contemplated, and the city recognizes that, said Randy Ready, assistant city manager.

Highlands Village evolved with the Ritz-Carlton Club rather than a standard hotel at the base of the ski area, and the Ritz runs its own shuttle service for its owners, taking away a pool of potential dial-a-ride customers.

But elsewhere along the corridor, a greatly expanded Aspen High School and Aspen Ski and Snowboard Club have been constructed, and the Aspen Recreation Center is nearly complete, creating additional transit demands.

?We agree with them that what was prescribed in the mid-?90s probably doesn?t make sense today,? Ready said. ?There may be a better way to do this that?s, A, less expensive; and, B, provides better service for everyone involved.?

Highlands Village and Five Trees, as part of their approvals, have already put forth $300,000 for the purchase of a new city bus that will begin serving the Maroon Creek Road corridor in December. In addition, the two metro districts must put up $163,000 a year to operate that bus during the winter months, leaving the city responsible for the cost of its operation for the rest of the year.

The bus will run directly between Rubey Park and Highlands Village twice an hour; the city?s Maroon/Castle bus runs every 20 minutes but takes a more circuitous route with stops on both Maroon Creek and Castle Creek roads.

?It?s going to be a major upgrade to Maroon Creek Road service,? Ready said.

Between the new direct bus, the Maroon/Castle bus and the wintertime skier shuttles that serve Highlands, the corridor will see an unprecedented level of service this winter.

However, with Aspen facing a shortfall in its own transportation budget and eyeing cuts to its city bus service, taking on the funding of the new Maroon Creek bus in the spring, summer and fall could force cutbacks elsewhere.

Some additional funds from Highlands Village and Five Trees to run that bus year-round instead of implementing dial-a-ride service is an alternative that the City Council might embrace, Ready said.

?We?re not in an adversarial position ? we?re just at a point where we need to make some decisions,? he said.

Highlands Village and Five Trees are willing to look at additional measures to facilitate transit, whether it?s a bike path that extends all the way to Highlands, more funding for city mass transit or something else, Beach said. But there are limits, he added.

?These are not people with unlimited budgets to pay for municipal services, and we see mass transit as being a municipal service for the most part,? he said.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]

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