Aspen’s not alone: Carbondale also facing traffic jams
August 13, 2006
Carbondale, which prides itself in being the anti-Aspen, is starting to emulate its upper-valley counterpart in terms of congestion.One town employee complained that it took her more than 20 minutes to get from Town Hall out to Highway 82 last week. That made her 30-minute commute to Glenwood Springs almost an hour. Over the past two weeks, the Carbondale Police Department has had five to six calls a day from motorists stuck in traffic jams on Highway 133.Police Sgt. Greg Knott said the traffic has been backing up all the way to Main Street at times, usually between 5-5:30 p.m. when the most traffic is trying to get onto Highway 133 from side streets.”It looks like the old days before they put in the [extra] turn lane,” said Knott, a downvalley commuter himself. The additional lane was put in a few years ago to allow more vehicles to turn left toward Glenwood during each traffic light cycle.Traffic is just a fact of life in this growing valley, as it is just about anywhere these days. But it is getting worse. One reason traffic jams are worse in Carbondale lately is a bridge replacement project near Colorado Rocky Mountain School. The bridge is closed until late September, eliminating one alternate route toward Glenwood and requiring residents on the west side of the Crystal River to take the long way around to Carbondale and back.A second reason is because the Colorado Department of Transportation has been tweaking the timing of traffic signals up and down the valley to try to increase safety, said traffic engineer Charles Meyer.”It’s a new high-speed signal feature that detects traffic in advance [on Highway 82] and holds the signal for a little bit longer to prevent the signal from changing at a bad time,” said Meyer.The advanced detection devices were installed on 14 signals from Glenwood to Aspen last month.”We’re always trying to improve highway operations and safety. With traffic signals we have competing needs,” he said. “Our goal is to balance that in a fair and safe manner so everyone is equally mad.”And people are getting mad in Carbondale, complaining to local CDOT maintenance workers and the police. Knott said there was some speculation that the side-street traffic was being held up in an effort to keep the traffic on Highway 82 moving. This is what Meyer refers to as the competing needs on the highway. Meyer said a signal could be held about one or two seconds longer to avoid that uncomfortable and dangerous situation when motorists are approaching an intersection at full speed, and the light turns yellow.”Do you gun it or slam on the brakes?” asked Meyer, referring to what traffic engineers call “the dilemma zone.”The devices shouldn’t be causing any major delays at the Highway 133/82 intersection, said Meyer, who guessed the added traffic was coming from the bridge closure, peak travel season and a few major construction projects going on in Carbondale right now.”We’re still interested in why there is such a change at 133 and 82. We essentially put the same times that we had in before and that seemed to be operating satisfactorily,” said Meyer, who has spoken to the Carbondale police, fire department and local maintenance workers. “Why is it backing up? We’re looking into that. July and August are the heaviest volume for 82, so the green time is being held out to the maximum.”We’ve had our signal electricians there directly observing it, doing video recordings. We’re on top of it.” The signals can only be extended for a certain period of time, depending on the specific signal, said Meyer. The worst-case scenario for a motorist at the Highway 82/133 intersection coming out of Carbondale would be a 145-second wait for a total cycle plus clearance time, said Meyer. That’s assuming all directions of traffic are at their maximum capacity. The signal would be green for about 90 seconds for cars coming out of Carbondale turning left or going straight across the highway to Red Hill. That translates to a 20-minute wait for that town of Carbondale employee if she is at the back of the line and has to wait through several full cycles to get out of town.CDOT had scheduled to repave the Highway 133 bridge over the Roaring Fork River this week, but has since decided to postpone the project until next year instead of exacerbating the traffic problem. Highway crews will be doing some patch work to fill in potholes in the next few weeks, said CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks.