Ballot deal in jeopardy? | AspenTimes.com

Ballot deal in jeopardy?

John Colson

Pro-rail and anti-rail factions on Aspen’s City Council were not sure Thursday whether a compromise could be worked out regarding a transportation-related election question in November.

City Attorney John Worcester distributed two different drafts of proposed ballot language Thursday, trying to satisfy the demands of both sides and perhaps head off a citizen initiative rail question that some city officials believe is premature.

But at the end of Thursday, council members Tony Hershey and Tom McCabe, both of them rail opponents, indicated they expect their petition drive to move ahead. Hershey said the group expects to collect the necessary number of signatures, 806, by the deadline on Aug. 10.

This might mean voters will again be faced with multiple, local transportation-related ballot questions on Nov. 2.

The final draft of the proposed compromise ballot language will be discussed at Monday’s City Council meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. at City Hall. According to Worcester, the City Council has until Sept. 8 to submit ballot questions to the county clerk’s office.

The compromise question asks voters to authorize use of a right of way across the city-owned Marolt property for “a two-lane parkway and a corridor for buses as described in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Record of Decision for the Entrance to Aspen project (to be constructed when financing is available).” The language is similar to the wording of the voters’ approval, in 1996, of use of the Marolt land for a parkway and rail system.

As part of the compromise deal, the council would pledge to hold an election in November 2000 on which transit system the voters prefer – rail or buses.

Hershey said one concern he has about the compromise question is, “what if the voters turn down the busway? We’ll be left with just rail?”

The ballot language dispute is centered around a petition drive, being led by Hershey and McCabe, to put a ballot question to voters in November.

The question would ask city voters to authorize $20 million from the sale of revenue bonds to pay for a light rail system between the Pitkin County Airport and the center of Aspen.

The authorization, according to the proposed ballot language, is contingent on the county voters passing similar legislation to pay the county’s share of the total cost. Consultants have estimated the total cost at $57 million (in 1997 dollars) to build light rail to the airport.

And, according to the initiative, if the light rail question fails, the voters will basically be authorizing construction of a “dedicated busway” in the place of light rail.

To further complicate the matter, the money to build the light rail system is being viewed as the “local match” for federal funds to build a proposed valleywide commuter rail system, from Glenwood Springs to the airport.

Mayor Rachel Richards, along with council members Jim Markalunas and Terry Paulson, have argued that the rail question is premature because not enough is known about the costs and ridership figures of the valleywide system.

Plus, Richards has said, for voters to be given a real choice between light rail and a busway, the ballot language should include information about the costs and ramifications of a busway, which she has predicted could cost many millions of dollars.

“I just want to make sure voters aren’t getting a pig in a poke if they vote for buses,” Richards said Thursday. She is worried that some voters may believe the “busway” alternative may simply mean a four-lane highway into town with painted symbols for “bus only” lanes.

She noted that anti-rail activist Jeffrey Evans and Hershey have written letters to the editor suggesting that, once such a “busway” is built, it could easily be converted back to an unrestricted four-lane.

An unrestricted four-lane, with no mass transit alternatives included, has been opposed by local voters, elected officials and the Colorado Department of Transportation because of concerns it would worsen the automotive congestion in Aspen.

But Hershey insisted Thursday that his intent is merely to fulfill the wishes of the voters who elected him on an openly anti-rail platform.

Maintaining that he would prefer to see a busway to either rail or a four-lane, he said the question is intended to provide both a plebiscite on rail and a land-use approval for buses if rail is rejected.

“We can still vote down rail, and approve a busway all at once,” he said.

Both Hershey and McCabe have argued that sufficient information on the rail proposal will be available before election day to allow the voters to make an informed decision.

And McCabe has said he believes that concerns about the bus lanes being converted to unrestricted traffic lanes are unfounded. He maintains the federal pollution standards, as well as local resistance to a four-lane, would prevent that from happening.

McCabe said Thursday afternoon he had not yet read the final draft of the compromise question, but when told of the wording said, “This sounds like it’s leaning in the right direction.”

Still, he said, even if he and Hershey agree to the compromise language and withdraw their support for the initiative question, he has been told by initiative supporter Evans that the petition drive will go ahead without them.

At the same time, Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper is pushing to have the county put its own question, identical to the initiative question, on the county ballot.

If that means the voters are faced with multiple questions in November, McCabe said, that’s OK with him.

“The voters could end up with exactly what they’ve been clamoring for … they could have the ultimate in questions, the largest choice selection we’ve ever seen,” he said.


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