Ballot lawsuit heads to court |

Ballot lawsuit heads to court

John Colson

A lawsuit aimed at disallowing a city-sponsored question in the Nov. 2 municipal election will get its first hearing before a U.S. District Court judge in Denver on Monday, according to Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards.

The suit, filed by unsuccessful mayoral candidate Michael O’Sullivan, is aimed at Question 2-C, put on the ballot by the City Council in response to Question 200, a citizens initiative sponsored by a collection of anti-rail activists.

Question 200 asks city voters whether they want to authorize an increase in city debt of up to $20 million to build a light-rail system between the Pitkin County Airport and downtown Aspen.

Question 2-C, backed by Richards and council members Jim Markalunas and Terry Paulson, asks voters whether they will authorize up to $16 million of city money to build a “dedicated, exclusive busway” along the same right of way the light-rail system would follow, in the event that the light-rail system is rejected by the voters.

O’Sullivan, who along with light-rail opponent Jeffrey Evans and anti-rail council members Tony Hershey and Tom McCabe, has fought against the light-rail system, claims Question 2-C is an attempt to confuse the voters and interfere with the citizens’ right to petition their government.

Richards, in her first public statements about the warring ballot questions and the resultant lawsuit, said Thursday that “the lawsuit itself is nonsense, totally groundless.”

In a written statement, she argued that the busway question is needed because, “in order to maintain the goal of no increases in traffic in Aspen, RFTA [the Roaring Fork Transit Agency, which runs the valley’s bus system] must be funded at significantly higher levels than today.”

The $16 million, which would be generated by the sale of municipal bonds, “is only the city’s share of capital needed to begin to upgrade the [bus] system” to the point where it could carry as many people as would be carried by the proposed light-rail system, Richards maintained.

Richards has noted that the Colorado Department of Transportation has endorsed light rail or a dedicated busway as the most effective way to deal with Aspen’s mounting traffic congestion. But, she has pointed out, Evans and Hershey have both indicated in letters to local newspapers that once such a busway is put in place it could, and should, be re-evaluated with an eye toward turning bus lanes back into traffic lanes for cars – either as unrestricted lanes or lanes for high-occupancy vehicles.

“If you look closely, [the lawsuit is] Common Sense Alliance’s attempt to put in an unrestricted four-lane highway in sheep’s clothing,” Richards said Thursday, a reference to the anti-rail group that Evans leads and with which O’Sullivan, Hershey and McCabe have been linked.

The busway question is needed, she has said, to give voters an alternative if they reject the light-rail question.

“The message [from Common Sense Alliance] all along has been to reject rail for an unknown, undefined system,” Richards said.

O’Sullivan, when he filed the suit, said Question 2-C is filled with “flaws” and is “redundant” because “we already have a bus system.”

Referring to the city’s question, O’Sullivan continued, “I think it’s an obvious attempt to thwart a simple, up or down vote on the rail.”

Richards countered that, if buses are to be Aspen’s only mass transportation system, it will need to convert its aging fleet of noisy, smelly diesel vehicles into cleaner-burning, articulated vehicles, which will be expensive. And, she said, an updated system will require “expanded maintenance facilities, bus storage areas and … a new, alternative fueling station.

“If a bus system is to be Aspen’s only form of mass transit for our residents, guests and workers, it must be the best system possible, designed and funded to be of dramatically higher quality than today,” she declared.

O’Sullivan’s suit asks a judge to order the City Council to disqualify Question 2-C and that any votes cast in favor or against the question not be counted.

The hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver, Richards said.

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