CDOT: Aspen support key to entrance
July 31, 2002
If Aspen voters reject a new alignment for Highway 82 in November, the state isn’t likely to build it even if it has title to the right of way in hand, according to Colorado’s top transportation official.
With Aspen poised to sign off on the transfer of the necessary easement for the Entrance to Aspen next month, opponents of the project fear the worst: that what happens at the entrance will be out of the city’s hands. With conveyance of the easement, the city has no trump card left to play to halt a project that may no longer have local support, opponents contend.
Not so, according to Tom Norton, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“The bottom line is, we’ve got so many demands for our money, if people are still arguing about the solution, I think we’d put the money where people aren’t arguing,” Norton said this week.
With the $62 million entrance project in contention for state funding, a majority on the Aspen City Council favor conveying the easement in accordance with an agreement that dates back to 1998. To do otherwise would shut the door on the option to realign the highway, they argue.
If voters subsequently reject the realignment, CDOT isn’t likely to build something Aspen doesn’t want, reasoned Councilman Tim Semrau during a recent debate.
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“CDOT is not going to force dollars down a community’s throat,” he said.
“If voters say in November they want all improvements on the existing alignment, I think people will understand that, I think CDOT will understand that, and they won’t spend the money,” agreed Mick Ireland, Pitkin County commissioner and a member of the State Transportation Advisory Committee.
Although Ireland believes CDOT would honor a vote to keep transportation improvements on the existing alignment, the state isn’t likely to fund those upgrades, he added.
The $62 million (in year 2000 dollars) would pay for the entrance project approved by city voters in 1996 – a two-lane parkway and light-rail corridor. It would reroute Highway 82 across open space between the Maroon Creek Road roundabout and the upper end of Main Street, bypassing the Cemetery Lane intersection and the “S-curves” – the two 90-degree turns that funnel traffic through the West End.
The funding, however, is still years away, according to Ireland. Even if the project wins priority status in a new state transportation plan, dollars for the work aren’t expected to materialize until later this decade at the earliest.
The bulldozing of open space won’t occur shortly after the easement is conveyed, Norton agreed.
“The fact that we have the right of way, or the ability to use the right of way, is not something that would accelerate the process,” he said.
But Norton’s prediction that CDOT won’t build what the community won’t support doesn’t ease the minds of local residents who oppose both the entrance project and transfer of the right of way.
“I guess my greatest fear, personally, is that you can never predict what Big Brother might do in Denver,” said Ed Zasacky, a member of the Friends of Marolt Park, which opposes use of the open space for a highway. “Once we give it [the easement], we have no local control.
“Why would anybody in their right mind give up an easement without being sure of what they’re going to get?”
“I’m not 100 percent comfortable with conveying something when the future’s uncertain,” agreed Mayor Helen Klanderud. “If you convey property to someone, it’s no longer under your control.”
Klanderud has questioned the wisdom of turning over the easement before voters have a new chance to weigh in on the entrance debate in November. The city is contemplating asking voters whether they prefer the new alignment for the highway or the existing one.
If voters endorse the new alignment, what might eventually be constructed remains up in the air. Although the two-lane parkway and light rail were approved in 1996, voters have since rejected both funding for light rail and the use of open space for exclusive bus lanes as an interim transit measure.
Some entrance opponents fear CDOT will try to build a two-lane highway across the open space and leave the transit solution for later or push again for the bus lane alternative.
“Our absolute worst fear is that CDOT would come in and utilize the right of way easement to build something – build four lanes of pavement,” said Dennis Vaughn, secretary/treasurer for the Friends.
CDOT’s acquisition of the right of way, however, may face a legal challenge. An attempt by citizens to halt the transfer unless it is approved by electors was thwarted this month when the City Council disallowed a citizens’ initiative on the matter. The citizens’ group has promised to move the battle to the courtroom.
[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com]