Castle Creek Bridge integral to Entrance to Aspen debate
The headaches associated with the upcoming work on the Castle Creek Bridge are likely to be a minor irritant compared to the migraine the span will cause in about 20 years.
That’s because the bridge is integral to the decades-long, ongoing debate about the Entrance to Aspen, and replacing it at the end of its life in two decades could finally trigger realignment of Highway 82 whether Aspen residents like it or not, a state transportation official said recently.
“The Castle Creek Bridge potentially could bring (the Entrance to Aspen) to a head,” said David Eller, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s director of the region that includes Aspen. “If it comes to the point of replacement, … CDOT would have to put some thought into it (and ask), ‘Is it time to address the Entrance to Aspen once and for all?’
“And that could open up the discussion that CDOT might have to do it whether or not the locals are on board.”
While the scenario would involve several ifs, the most significant is a federal lawsuit filed in 1999 by opponents of the plan to reroute Highway 82 from the roundabout across the Marolt Open Space, through a 400-foot tunnel and across a new bridge over the Castle Creek Valley that would hook up with Main Street via Seventh Street, Eller said.
In that lawsuit, the 10th Circuit of Appeals in November 2004 affirmed a District Court ruling upholding the environmental impact analysis of the highway realignment process conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to the ruling. The Appeals Court did not, however, rule on another issue brought up by opponents having to do with violating a law prohibiting use of park land.
The Appeals Court said that issue could not be decided until several contingencies — including a vote by Aspen residents and funding for the project — were decided first, according to the ruling.
Once those contingencies are settled — including a decision by Aspen voters to include bus lanes through Marolt — then the federal court can decide the issue about park land, Eller said. And even if residents vote down the realignment, the federal court could still allow the project to go forward, he said.
“I do believe that a federal court decision can trump the locals,” Eller said. “CDOT can (then) condemn the property.”
Eller compared the situation to the recently completed Grand Avenue Bridge in Glenwood Springs, which he said was resisted by the community for years.
“Like the Grand Avenue Bridge, we could get to the point where we have to do it,” he said.
But unlike the Grand Avenue Bridge, CDOT doesn’t have to worry about moving traffic on the other side of the Castle Creek Bridge, which makes the issue a local problem and not a state problem, Eller said. That means the agency won’t push the project, especially in the face of local opposition, he said.
However, because CDOT owns the Castle Creek Bridge — which was built in 1961 — when the structure approaches the end of its life, it will fall to CDOT to replace it, he said.
“If it’s not in the interest of the taxpayer to replace the bridge (in its current location), we won’t do it,” Eller said.
The debate over the Entrance to Aspen centers on trying to find a solution to the frequent traffic jams — especially at peak driving times — that plague the S-curves. It has been the subject of 27 votes in the city and county during the past 40 or so years and nothing has happened.
“We talk about it and we talk about and we talk about it and we don’t do anything about it,” Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said.
City voters in 1996 approved building two traffic lanes and a light rail corridor across the Marolt Open Space by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. In 2001, city residents voted against building two lanes of traffic and two dedicated bus lanes across Marolt by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.
The Marolt plan to deal with the problem and bypass the S-curves — called the “modified direct route” or the “preferred alternative” — was issued by the Federal Highway Administration as a Record of Decision in 1998.
In the latest vote on the project from November 2002, city residents chose to keep the S-curves over the modified direct route 56 percent to 44 percent, while county voters chose the S-curves 51 percent to 49 percent.
In July 2016, the Aspen City Council, Pitkin Board of County Commissioners and the Snowmass Village Town Council voted to spend $494,000 to study how much it would cost to build light rail across Marolt versus building dedicated bus lanes across the open space.
At the time, momentum seemed to be building toward approving one of those two solutions.
The results came in March 2017, when a consultant told the Elected Officials Transportation Committee that two traffic lanes plus light rail across Marolt would cost between $428 million and $528 million, while building four traffic lanes that included two dedicated bus lanes would cost between $159 million and $200 million.
The cost of building light rail effectively doomed that proposal in the eyes of the elected officials. However, even though Aspen voters would have to approve dedicated bus lanes across Marolt, that proposition seemed to resonate with Pitkin County commissioners and Snowmass Village town council members.
Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler, for example, said officials had to get the Marolt issue to Aspen voters. Commissioner Rachel Richards said she felt the same way.
“If we don’t eliminate the S-curves, we’ll never get rid of the (traffic) backup to the (Pitkin County) Courthouse,” Richards said at the time.
But Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron ended all of that talk when, an hour and 15 minutes into a June EOTC meeting, he declared the Marolt issue to be off the table.
“There’s no political will to prioritize development of the Marolt Open Space,” Skadron said. “It’s a nonstarter with the Aspen City Council.”
Clapper said last week that Skadron’s surprise announcement in June “caught me totally off guard.”
“We’d been discussing the Entrance ad nauseam,” she said. “When Steve said there was no political will, we all kind of like gaped.”
In an interview last week, Skadron said he meant “that no candidate on this City Council ran on a platform to pave open space.”
He said he was uncomfortable at the time with the direction of the conversation, which appeared to be heading toward a Marolt solution.
“I felt the citizens of Aspen were being pushed in a direction by the county and Snowmass Village officials that (the City Council) hadn’t talked about ourselves,” Skadron said. “I wasn’t thinking the discussion would immediately turn to bulldozers paving Marolt.”
Instead, Skadron teased and weeks later unveiled another concept aimed at reducing traffic he termed a “mobility lab.” The nebulous, evolving concept aimed at using transportation technology to reduce the number of cars in town.
Skadron proposed raising millions of dollars from tech companies and others to fund the concept, though that proved difficult, he said. The concept is now back at the drawing board, with more developments to come in the next year, Skadron said.
Councilman Bert Myrin, however, declared the mobility lab idea dead.
“The mobility lab fell apart because there was no money,” he said.
Further, it was pointless because it didn’t focus on the Entrance to Aspen, which poses a far more major traffic problem than reducing congestion in the downtown core, which was the mobility lab’s focus, Myrin said.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein agreed, saying the mobility lab’s outcome was never clear. He said it should be focused on using the Intercept Lot and possibly parking lots at Buttermilk and the Aspen airport to alleviate traffic jams at the Entrance.
Skadron insisted the mobility lab was focused on the Entrance and using the Intercept Lot to ease the traffic jams.
In an open discussion at a county commissioner meeting in late January, Richards criticized the mobility lab as an ill-defined, unfocused idea.
“It’s kind of like the whole upper valley is waiting on the city to decide what they’re going to do,” Richards said. “And I think there’s a lot of skepticism out there that it will alleviate the need to actively fix the Entrance, to put it politely.
“It’s just leaving our transportation needs up in the air.”
Eller said he thinks a plan to fix the Entrance to Aspen using the Marolt property would compete well with other projects in the region despite its cost. He said that while he understands the local issues involved, he is surprised no plan has come together.
“You’d think the locals would push it because it makes life better,” Eller said.
But Skadron, Myrin, Hauenstein and Councilman Adam Frisch all cast doubt on whether building the straight shot across Marolt would actually lessen congestion. All said they believe the added capacity would merely bring more traffic and that after spending tens of millions of dollars and the political capital necessary to build the straight shot across Marolt, the city would be right back where it is today.
“You increase everything if you build more lanes,” Skadron said.
Councilwoman Ann Mullins did not return a phone message seeking comment, though she has said she doesn’t support going across Marolt, either.
Myrin and Skadron said they wanted to protect the S-curves as the historic Entrance to Aspen.
“I want the preservation of our mountain-town culture,” Skadron said. “The built environment is a key component of that culture. A straight shot runs counter to those principles.”
Myrin put it more succinctly.
“If the community is not delivering what your goals are, you move,” he said. “If you want a straight shot, move to Vail. If you’re not happy with the traffic, take RFTA.”
To further drive a nail into the straight-shot coffin — though the situation could certainly change in the next two decades with a different City Council — Eller said CDOT would listen if city of Aspen officials wanted to talk about splitting the cost of a new Castle Creek Bridge in the same spot as the current one.
“If the city says we’ll be a funding partner, then we’d re-evaluate,” Eller said.
Meanwhile, Clapper proposed a solution for those stuck in traffic around the S-curves.
“Call your mother,” she said. “Talk to your kids in the backseat. Turn up the radio and sing at the top of your lungs. At least you could deal with the frustration that way, because right now I don’t see physical solution to the problem in the near future.”
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