Aspen’s trolley car debate reaches end of the line
March 27, 2002
Aspen’s trolley cars have apparently reached the end of the line.
The City Council derailed the hopes of a small band of trolley enthusiasts Tuesday when it refused to give the group any more time to mount a campaign to save the cars through an advisory referendum.
The council was ready to give the antique cars away last year before members of the Aspen Street Railway Co. convinced them to hold off until spring. Council members refused to grant the group another extension.
Assistant City Manager Ed Sadler has permission to give the six dilapidated cars away, preferably to communities that will restore them and put them into service. He has received numerous inquiries from cities that have trolley lines.
Only Councilman Terry Paulson sided with the railway group in calling for a public vote on the fate of the trolleys before giving them away.
“This is a lack of vision, guys,” he said, predicting the council would regret the decision.
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“You may be right, Terry,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud. “The time comes when you have to make a decision.”
When the council agreed last fall to hold on to the cars for one more winter, it told members of the railway group to draft a ballot question proposing a trolley line in Aspen and a means of funding it. The trolley supporters were also to seek signatures petitioning the council to put the measure on a May ballot.
Group members admitted they did not get their act together in time for a spring vote, but they also noted turnout for a special election in May would likely be light. There will be no city election this spring – something the railway group did not realize last fall.
They suggested the trolley question be put to voters during the primary on Aug. 6.
“We’d like a sampling of sufficient size that’s meaningful,” said railway group member Bill Dinsmoor.
The railway group, which originally imported the cars from Portugal some 22 years ago, has long envisioned a Galena Street trolley line.
The vintage trolleys could provide Aspen with a unique tourist amenity that is even more important in light of the resort’s current economic struggles, group members argued.
“Anything that could excite this environment would be beneficial,” said Bob D’Alessio.
“Give this to the voters,” urged Camilla Sparlin, a longtime Aspenite who is not a member of the railway company. “You think of it as a Tinker Toy. Have you stopped to think about why other communities are clamoring for this?”
The trolley backers also presented the council with letters from two former mayors – John Bennett and Bill Stirling – who advocated putting the trolley issue to a public vote.
A trolley system, Bennett wrote, “is one of those broad community character issues with the potential to help define Aspen’s future. As such, it deserves to be debated and voted on by our citizens.”
But Klanderud suggested her predecessors were “passing the buck.”
“The city has had the trolleys in its possession for 20 years,” she said. “We’ve just heard from two mayors who had the opportunity to do what they say they want us to do.”
Council members voiced concerns about the cost of maintaining a trolley line, even if the group raises the capital to install it, and about the ability of a trolley system to reverse Aspen’s economic fortunes.
“There are no panaceas,” Klanderud said.
“There’s also no evidence the community wants a trolley line,” argued Councilman Tom McCabe.
“There’s not the fire in the belly of the community on this issue,” he said. “If there were, I think this room would be packed.
“This is just something that doesn’t make sense in this community at this time. It hasn’t made sense for 20 years,” McCabe added. “It would take a passion for this to work. It’s not there.”
“Your vision is beautiful. I share it in many respects,” Klanderud said. “I don’t know if we can do it here.”
The trolley backers, convening briefly outside the council’s chambers after the discussion, appeared to believe their last chance rests with the public. If the community clamors for a chance to vote on the trolleys, it might sway the council, reasoned Jon Busch, a member of the railway group.
“I would hope people would show up at the next council meeting and show the council there is a groundswell of support,” he said.