Aspen mayor: Marolt Open Space off the table for Entrance to Aspen
Aspen residents will not be voting anytime soon on whether to route traffic at the Entrance to Aspen across city-owned open space west of town.
“There’s no political will to prioritize development of the Marolt Open Space,” Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron told colleagues Thursday at a meeting of the Elected Officials Transportation Committee. “It’s a nonstarter with the Aspen City Council.”
Skadron made the comments about an hour and 15 minutes into Thursday’s meeting as officials listened to the final results of a $494,000 study that looked at the use of buses versus light rail at the frequently congested Entrance to Aspen.
The study assumed either option would bypass the S-curves that now plague the entrance with massive traffic delays and backups, and instead route traffic across Marolt, through a tunnel and across a new Castle Creek Bridge to hook up with Main Street at Seventh Street.
A light-rail option would cost between $428 million and $528 million, the study found. A four-lane highway across Marolt with a dedicated bus lane would cost between $159 million and $200 million, according to the study.
Ralph Trapani, a transportation consultant and former Colorado Department of Transportation official, told EOTC members Thursday that the Parsons engineering firm he works for recommends the bus option because it can be economically phased in and because the infrastructure required still leaves open the option for light rail in the future.
A large part of the cost of the bus option is building the so-called “modified direct route” or the “preferred alternative” across the Marolt Open Space. That includes $21 million for design and acquiring right of ways, and $81.6 million to build the traffic lanes, tunnel and new bridge, Trapani said.
Before any of that can be done, Aspen voters must be consulted.
That’s because voters approved two traffic lanes and a light-rail corridor across Marolt by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent in 1996. However, voters turned down the idea of dedicated bus lanes across Marolt in 2001 by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.
Voters in Aspen and Pitkin County chose the S-curves over the Marolt route in a nonbinding vote in 2002, as well.
And it was that necessary vote of Aspen residents that kept coming back around during Thursday’s meeting in Snowmass Village, at least until Skadron made his announcement.
“If we don’t build it, we’ve done nothing to solve the congestion,” Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler said. “To me, we’ve got to get that Marolt issue in front of voters.”
Snowmass Village Town Councilman Tom Goode echoed those comments, saying that until Aspen voters have chimed in, any attempt to move forward with the Entrance to Aspen is futile.
“If (Aspen residents) don’t want anything in that open space, then we’re wasting our time,” Goode said.
Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards said that use of electric buses might garner public support for a route across Marolt. But if elected officials do nothing about the problem, it won’t get better, she said.
“If we don’t eliminate the S-curves, we’ll never get rid of the (traffic) backup to the courthouse,” Richards said. “I can’t see spending a dime on design or engineering until that vote — and that’s uncertain.
“(But) if you don’t do something long enough, the dam will break.”
Skadron then made his bombshell announcement, followed by a supporting comment by Aspen City Councilwoman Ann Mullins.
“We want to see the system optimized without Marolt coming into play,” she said.
Skadon also told fellow elected officials that while he wasn’t ready to go public yet, the City Council is expecting a presentation June 26 that will provide “a rough frame for how we envision a solution to the entrance and mobility inside Aspen.”
After the meeting, Skadron declined to release further details about the upcoming City Council presentation. However, he did point out that he’s always been for preserving the S-curves.
“At this time, we’re looking at alternatives,” he said. “There’s not one study that shows a straight shot across the Marolt Open Space results in free-flowing traffic at peak times.”
Councilman Adam Frisch said he wasn’t philosophically against using Marolt, but wasn’t sure it is worth the fighting and money if the route only shaves two to three minutes off people’s commute. Specifically, if people who drive find out the Marolt route won’t save them time, then a significant source of support goes away, Frisch said.
“It’s a bum deal,” he said. “I’m not sure what the benefits are.”
After the meeting, Mullins also questioned whether two minutes was worth the price of using Marolt. On the other hand, she said that eliminating the S-curves would improve life for people who live in that area.
“I’m not against (using Marolt),” Mullins said, suggesting that another study updating the 1998 study of the S-curves might be in order.
Councilman Bert Myrin, who fought against using Marolt in 2001, said he will likely never support its use.
“How big does the city want to be?” Myrin asked.
Elected officials have scheduled an extra EOTC meeting in September to discuss only Entrance to Aspen issues. With the use of Marolt off the table for the time being, they plan to discuss ways to “optimize” bus routes and the possible purchase of electric buses.