Buttermilk underpass proposal: $200K and here we go again
Questions about a hugely expensive, possibly redundant proposed underpass at Buttermilk that were answered for $40,000 more than three years ago were asked again Thursday at a meeting of area elected officials.
This time, the Elected Officials Transportation Committee approved another $200,000 to begin designing a $9.4 million underpass and answer the same questions that were answered in a feasibility study for the project in 2018, including whether it ought to be an overpass.
“It seems like an awful lot of money to speed people up for less than a mile and a quarter to then hit the next big traffic snag we haven’t worked on,” said Aspen City Councilwoman Rachel Richards, noting that traffic goes to two lanes after the roundabout.
Richards urged the committee — made up of elected officials from Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village — to deal with the long-ignored Entrance to Aspen S-curves and the massive, bottlenecked traffic woes it creates on a daily basis.
“I’d like to see the same commitment over time to dealing with that issue as well,” Richards said. “Because we’re just rearranging the deck chairs with these sort of things.”
An underpass beneath Highway 82 at Buttermilk has been long proposed. In June 2018, the EOTC heard results of a $40,000 feasibility study, which provided all the answers to questions posed by elected officials about the project during Thursday’s EOTC meeting in Aspen.
Snowmass Village Town Councilor Bob Sirkus asked whether anyone had data about how many pedestrians cross at the intersection. EOTC Administrator David Pesnichak said the current engineering contractor based estimates on modeling that showed a savings of two minutes on a bus ride into or out of town without a crosswalk at Buttermilk.
However, the 2018 report raised eyebrows among EOTC members at the time — particularly then-Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler — because a pedestrian study over three days in March 2018 showed that only 121 people crossed the highway during a three-hour peak period. Just 177 people crossed the intersection in an 11-hour period, half of whom were Aspen Skiing Co. employees.
The recommended threshold for building an underpass is 300 pedestrians in four hours, according to an engineering consultant at the time.
“I’m starting to struggle with the cost to benefit (of the underpass),” Butler said in 2018.
Richards and Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober on Thursday said they wanted to see Skico chip in to build the Buttermilk underpass.
But back in 2018, a Skico community liaison clearly said the company was not interested in the underpass because only a “tiny percentage of the skiers who use Buttermilk” cross there, and that the numbers in the pedestrian study were “not all that compelling.”
On Thursday, Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child asked that the $200,000 approved for initial design of the Buttermilk underpass also include an estimate for an overpass, which he said could be “incredibly beautiful.”
That issue, too, was covered in the 2018 study.
An overpass, at that time, would have cost between $4.5 million and $5.5 million, as opposed to the estimate of between $7.5 million and $9.5 million for the underpass at the time. An overpass also was ruled out at the time and barely considered by the EOTC because of visual impacts.
Thursday’s estimate of $9.4 million to design and build the 115-foot tunnel under the highway will likely be higher because of escalating construction costs, Richards said. The underpass would be so expensive because it would require the relocation of utilities, a re-routing of the bike path on the south side of the road and traffic impacts.
The engineering consultant in 2018 said it could take two construction seasons to complete the underpass.
Finally, Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper pointed out that four other underpasses exist in the same general area, including one at the airport, at Harmony Road, at the Maroon Creek Club and at Truscott.
Nonetheless, the EOTC allocated another $200,000 to the project on Thursday, partially because there aren’t many other transit projects along Highway 82 vying for state and federal dollars, said John Krueger, city of Aspen transportation director. Pesnichak also said that committing the $200,000 shows other agencies involved in awarding transit grants that the area is serious about the project.