CDOT official: Entrance vote not important | AspenTimes.com

CDOT official: Entrance vote not important

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The regional director of the Colorado Department of Transportation does not think the outcome of the latest Entrance to Aspen ballot questions matters that much to the fate of the project.

“I think it is moot,” said Owen Leonard, director of CDOT’s region three, which includes Aspen and State Highway 82. “This project has regional and statewide significance and that significance is to the general traveling public.

“I know opponents who live in Aspen probably would not want to hear me say that, but I do think we have complied with our process. If the department had the money and wanted to move forward, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t do that.”

Voters in Aspen and Pitkin County are being asked this fall, “Which alignment for the Entrance to Aspen do you prefer, the ‘S-curves’ (existing alignment) or the Modified Direct Alignment across the Marolt/Thomas property?”

The questions in both the city and the county are advisory and nonbinding. And by themselves, the questions don’t change a 1996 vote that approved two lanes of highway and a light rail system running across the land between the Maroon Creek roundabout and 7th and Main streets in Aspen.

This fall’s ballot questions, no matter the outcome, could be politically relevant depending on what actions the Aspen City Council, the Pitkin County commissioners or other groups take with the results in hand. And many of the next steps may likely involve trying to influence CDOT’s position and actions on the project.

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Opponents of moving the highway are hoping the vote will slow any progress on obtaining funding from the state for the project and that the status quo will reign.

And those in favor of the new alignment, which includes a dedicated mass-transit right of way, are indeed concerned that a vote for the S-curves could send a signal to CDOT that the project lacks community support.

Leonard’s comments, made yesterday, conflict with a statement made by CDOT Executive Director Tom Norton in July.

Norton told The Aspen Times, “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.”

While Leonard said yesterday that he could not speak directly for CDOT’s transportation commission, which makes funding decisions for specific projects, he did say, “They recognize there is opposition to a lot of our projects and that once we have expended resources to get them to a certain stage, the reasonable thing to do is get them completed as soon as possible.”

The Entrance to Aspen project is a candidate to be included in the state’s 2003 Strategic Investment Plan, which Leonard expects to be completed by the end of year.

If the entrance is included on that list of projects considered important to complete but lacking specific funding, then Leonard said he is prepared to move forward with final design work. CDOT crews are currently conducting a geotechnical analysis on portions of the Marolt/Thomas properties.

The entrance project is now expected to cost $72 million in 2002 dollars, according to Joe Elsen, the program engineer for Highway 82 projects.

The recently revised estimates for the project include $28 million for a new Maroon Creek Bridge and $44 million for a new Castle Creek Bridge, a cut-and-cover tunnel, utility relocations and right of way acquisition costs.

If there is to be a light rail component to the project, it would be on top of the $72 million cost. A light rail system from downtown Aspen to the Pitkin County airport has been estimated to cost at least $65 million.

As for funding, Leonard said it could be up to 10 years before funding is available to build the highway portion of the project, but that money could be available sooner.

“The Entrance to Aspen is not in any kind of funded plan right now, but that does not mean that it hasn’t been prioritized, because it has,” Leonard said. “It does enjoy a pretty good status within the strategic program.”

And if that status holds, he doesn’t see November’s local advisory questions holding much sway.

“I just don’t think it would make a huge amount of difference,” Leonard said. “I tend to think this project is to the point that if it makes the cut and gets into the 2003 plan, we would move forward with final design so we could get it ready to go.”

And while there is close to $1 billion worth of highway projects in Colorado that are in line ahead of the Entrance to Aspen project, unexpected highway funds in the past have been directed to projects that have environmental and design work complete.

For example, the $300 million Snowmass Canyon four-laning of Highway 82 wasn’t expected to get funding for decades, but it is now under construction.

“Snowmass Canyon was only expected to get funding at a rate of $3 million a year,” said Elsen. “Now we’re spending $3 million a month. Things change. And it was ready to go.”

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]