City, Aspen school officials aim to ease traffic congestion |

City, Aspen school officials aim to ease traffic congestion

Rick Carroll | The Aspen Times
File photoTraffic backs up before the roundabout on Maroon Creek Road, which goes to the Aspen School District campus, during a paving operation at the roundabout in May. City Council has asked the school district to put a traffic-reduction plan in place to help ease the gridlock that's similar to what's shown in this photo.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

School traffic and politics do mix, at least when it comes to November’s election.

The Aspen City Council on Monday approved the Aspen School District’s request for a ballot question seeking the extension of the city’s 0.3 percent sales tax that serves educational needs. But the council’s blessing hinged on a good-faith agreement with the school district that it address gridlock at the Highway 82 traffic circle.

Members of the council brought it up during a work session Aug. 2, when three school board members made their case for the sales tax extension. At the time, councilmen Adam Frisch and Bert Myrin implored the school board members to start tackling the weekday traffic problem that surfaces before and after school.

“I remain embarrassed by my fellow parents who continue to drive their children to school,” Frisch said at the meeting.

And at Monday’s meeting, resident Howie Mallory offered his take. He said he would support the tax extension but argued the school district should be held accountable for the gridlock.

“The school itself is a major traffic generator,” he said, calling on the council to require the district to put a traffic-reduction management plan in place before classes start the week of Aug. 22. He suggested implementing the plan in phases over the next two or three years “because nothing will be done overnight.”

School officials say they have been addressing the issue, but it’s not a quick fix.

The city, through its transportation grant program, gave the school district $8,000 earlier this year, said Lynn Rumbaugh, manager of the city’s Transportation Program.

Part of that grant was used for a traffic-count study administered during the school district’s spring session. Results have yet to come in. Another traffic count will be performed later this fall, said John Maloy, superintendent of Aspen schools, on Wednesday.

The elementary, middle and high schools all are part of a campus that vehicles can only access by passing through the roundabout onto Maroon Creek Road.

Maloy said the school has been doing its part to alleviate traffic. It has a bus that picks up staff and faculty members on school days at the Catherine Store outside of Carbondale, making stops along the way. Another bus services Snowmass staff members, he said.

“We encourage carpooling,” he said, noting the school fines students who park their cars at the Aspen Recreation Center lot, which is for users of the recreation center and playing fields only.

The bus ridership average is at about 70 percent per day, Maloy said, noting most riders are younger. The same buses carry children as young as kindergartners and as old as high school seniors.

“We know some parents are concerned about bullying or the safety of their children,” he said, adding that Aspen police officers occasionally rode buses last school year.

Part of parents’ reasons for taking their kids to school is because it’s a “cultural activity in our community,” he said.

“We’re a small community, and this is a time to spend with their children, to walk them up to the door or maybe have a quick conversation with the students’ teacher or even the principal.”

Board of Education President Susan Marolt said, “I think sometimes parents of the younger kids like to drive them to school and walk them into school and talk to the teachers. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s good that parents are involved that way.”

Even so, Maloy and Marolt acknowledged school traffic is adding to the congestion.

A survey will be sent to parents this fall seeking their reasons for driving their kids to school.

The high school’s practice of allowing only seniors to drive to school also has drawn criticism from Councilman Bert Myrin. Seniors who pay $80 get a parking pass this fall. About 60 to 80 spots are available, Maloy said.

Myrin said those spots should be reserved for students who carpool, regardless of their class.

“It’s at odds with what (the city) is trying to accomplish,” he said.

The level of school traffic contributing to the congestion has yet to be determined.

The survey and traffic counts are expected to better identify the issue, people interviewed for this story said.

“The biggest question is who’s causing the traffic and how can that be changed,” Myrin said. “If it’s all the people who are carpooling, that’s one thing. If it’s one person dropping off a second person, then that’s different.”

Maloy and Marolt said while it’s evident the school traffic is partly to blame for the roundabout woes, it’s not the only source.

“Obviously judging from this summer, we’re not the only entity that is causing traffic,” Marolt said. “But I think it’s always something we can work harder on.”

The sales tax has been in effect since Jan. 1, 2013. It expires Dec. 31. It is administered by the city and distributed by the Aspen Public Education Fund Board.

In 2015, it drew nearly $2 million, Maloy said.

Snowmass Village’s town council has yet to approve placing the question, which would seek a raise in property taxes, on its November ballot, according to Maloy and Marolt. The town is trying establish a funding group similar to the one in Aspen, they said.