Ballot deal off |

Ballot deal off

The gloves came off Monday, as the two emerging factions of the Aspen City Council dumped any pretense at seeking compromise on rail-related issues.

After nearly two hours of sometimes rancorous debate, the outcome of last night’s meeting – by a 3-2 vote – is that there will be two separate questions on the November city ballot.

A proposed “compromise” ballot question got lost in the heat of the debate.

One question, a citizens’ initiative, will ask whether voters are willing to authorize up to $20 million from the sale of municipal bonds for the city’s share of building a light-rail system between the Pitkin County Airport and the center of town. The other question will ask if up to $20 million should go for a dedicated busway along the same route.

If rail is approved by the city voters, the initiative question declares that the $20 million in bond proceeds can only be raised if the county voters also give their approval for rail.

If county voters turn rail down, the initiative question calls for the city to move ahead with construction of bus lanes as part of the “Entrance to Aspen” realignment of Highway 82, but the initiative question includes no specific information about bus funding.

This has led pro-rail activists to conclude that the initiative campaign is really a drive to kill the rail system, and build a four-lane highway into Aspen with two lanes initially dedicated to bus-only traffic.

Pro-rail forces worry that voters, particularly those voting on a proposed companion question in Pitkin County, will link their frustration over summer-long traffic jams with widespread skepticism about light rail in general, and vote against the rail system out of anger at the City Council.

“Tom and Tony, congratulations,” said pro-rail Councilman Jim Markalunas, addressing council members Tom McCabe and Tony Hershey, calling the initiative “an attempt to hoodwink the public … it’s four-lane in light-rail clothing.

“You’ve succeeded in creating total confusion among the voters here,” Markalunas continued, “and it’s a sad comment that a group of people who have very little interest in this community are pulling the strings,” a reference to anti-rail activist Jeffrey Evans.

Evans, who lives in the Crystal River Valley and is not a city voter, is the chief organizer behind the initiative, although McCabe, Hershey and Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper are the formal leaders.

McCabe, upset by what he views as an equally deceptive move by Mayor Rachel Richards at Monday’s meeting, said heatedly, “As a strategic piece, this is cute. But if you are really committed to mass transit, this is playing with nitroglycerine.”

He was referring to the bus-funding question, proposed by Richards, which he predicted would lead voters to vote against rail and buses alike.

In that case, he said, the city will be faced with a “no-build scenario” which will result in the Colorado Department of Transportation building a two-lane highway linking directly to Main Street, with no mass transit component at all.

McCabe insisted at one point, “I’m not anti-rail,” and argued that the bus system would only be the “first phase” of a mass transit system that would ultimately be “upgraded” to light rail, linked with a valleywide commuter rail system. Hershey agreed, but said such a system is probably 10 or 20 years away from being “financially feasible.”

McCabe and Hershey steadfastly maintained they are only doing what they were elected to do – give the voters a chance to make a decision about the proposed light-rail system.

But the others at the table were equally insistent that the voters may not have access to enough information to make an informed decision this fall, and all funding questions should be delayed until the year 2000.

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