Bus Rapid Transit plan hits congestion hurdle | AspenTimes.com

Bus Rapid Transit plan hits congestion hurdle

Investment in a speedy, high-tech bus system for the Roaring Fork Valley must go hand in hand with a solution to the bottleneck at the entrance to Aspen, area officials seemed to agree last week.

A four-hour transportation workshop Thursday at The Gant drew elected representatives from Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County, as well as Colorado Department of Transportation officials, local government staffers and directors of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

The focus was whether to move ahead with plans for a Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, system for the valley – an investment of at least $100 million. But, the BRT’s promise of fast, efficient mass transit – it has been dubbed rail on wheels – grinds to a halt in the face of the upper valley’s biggest transportation issue – growing traffic congestion at Aspen’s entrance.

Not only does the bottleneck compromise BRT operation, but it is likely to hamper the valley’s ability to win federal dollars to help pay for the system.

“The question comes up – what about Aspen?” said Alice Laird, director of the New Century Transportation Foundation, a valley nonprofit that works as an advocate for transit and trails.

“There’s no point in spending money on BRT if there’s no fix to the entrance,” said Jacque Whitsitt, a former Basalt councilwoman and RFTA board member who now serves on the New Century board. “I think everybody kind of knows that.”

A Bus Rapid Transit system, with an estimated price tag of $102 million in 2002, represents a step up from the valley’s existing bus service.

Among its features would be sleek, quiet, low-floor buses that don’t stray from the Highway 82 corridor. A GPS system would give riders up-to-the-minute information about a bus’s projected arrival time at each stop, as well as at the full-fledged stations envisioned along the route. Automatic ticketing and multiple doors on the vehicles would allow for quick loading and unloading.

The system could reduce the ride time between Glenwood Springs and Aspen from 90 minutes to an hour – unless the bus is stuck in traffic crawling in or out of Aspen.

“I think the entrance to Aspen needs to be decided and implemented,” County Commissioner Dorothea Farris said after the session. “I think we’ve reached the point where something has to be done or we’ve destroyed the quality of life in the upper valley.”

The assembled group agreed that RFTA should take the lead on BRT; the RFTA board of directors consists of elected officials from up and down the valley. Seeking federal funding will be a complex and time-consuming process, warned the New Century Transportation Foundation representatives.

A formal decision to pursue BRT won’t happen until early next year; if the valley pursues the system in earnest, it could be 2010 or 2011 before it is in place, according to the outlines presented Thursday.

In the meantime, the city of Aspen is devising a plan to bring the public into a discussion about what to do with its entrance and will create an outbound bus lane on Main Street by next summer.

Some elected officials have called for reopening the 1998 Record of Decision that outlined a new alignment of Highway 82 on the western edge of town. That plan called for two lanes of traffic and light rail or, as an interim transit measure, dedicated bus lanes, on a new alignment cutting across open space. It would bypass the existing bottleneck where Highway 82 narrows to two lanes and winds through two 90-degree turns commonly known as the S-curves.

The federal approvals contained in the Record of Decision are now out of date. In addition, Aspen voters rejected realignment of the highway in 2001.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com.

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