City applies for $200M placeholder on CDOT list for Entrance to Aspen

Traffic-snarled Highway 82 is the busiest rural highway in the state

The city of Aspen last month applied for placement on the Colorado Department of Transportation’s regional list of projects and to be considered for $200 million toward the Entrance to Aspen.

It’s a list that has a lot of competition from other counties and cities on the Western Slope, and to get a place in line for Highway 82 — the busiest rural highway in the state — city officials decided it’s time to get the ball rolling again, said Pete Rice, division manager in the municipal government’s engineering department.

“We’ve got to be on their 10-year list in order to progress,” he said this week. “If you are not on that, you can’t really go for grants. It’s a little more difficult and CDOT really likes to see packages done.”

As an example, Rice referred to the recently approved improvements at the bus stops across from Paepcke Park, which CDOT provided almost $1 million in grants toward.

“We had the plans in hand and we were ready to go,” he said.

The package for the entrance to Aspen is CDOT’s preferred alternative identified in the agency’s Record of Decision in 1998 that identifies Marolt Open Space as the vehicle alignment coming into town with light rail.

Also known as the modified direct route, it would screen off the S-curves and instead include four traffic lanes — two public transit-only lanes and two normal traffic lanes — across the open space, located just east of the roundabout. That construction would include a tunnel and a new bridge across Castle Creek farther south from the current bridge, and would hook up with Main Street via Seventh Street.

There have been more than two dozen public votes to decide the Entrance to Aspen and there still is no community consensus.

Getting on CDOT’s list is not meant to push the project forward without public dialogue but rather to proceed in acquiring the funding.

“It’s not trying to get ahead of the public conversation but it’s cart and horse, chicken and egg,” said Denise White, the city’s director of communications. “If we don’t get on the list and the public conversation leads in that direction, then we’re not on the list to start the conversation around the funding.”

An upper valley mobility study in 2017 estimated that the preferred alternative would cost $160 million without the light rail component. With light rail, the price tag was $428 million.

The city estimates that figure to be $528 million but has not requested to be placed on the list for that item as officials plan to go in for a deep dive on the Record of Decision and what’s possible now.

Rice said his department got direction from City Manager Sara Ott to get in front of CDOT on this issue, and he has been in discussions with the Elected Officials Transportation Committee about it as well.

“I think Sara’s concerns are the emergency egress and age of the bridge (built in 1968),” he said.

Aspen City Council has earmarked $150,000 in this year’s budget toward a public education and outreach campaign that will center around CDOT’s Record of Decision and the preferred alternative.

Council is expected to discuss that plan and the city’s subsequent moves next week.

“Part of our discussions that are in the plan that we’re going to present to council is understanding all of the risks associated trying to go for money, working with CDOT, what is the best path?” Rice said. “That’s an important piece for us to understand potential funding, understand what it means to go with the federal money and understand all the risks and opportunities associated with it.”