City cracking open 24-year-old decision on entrance to Aspen |

City cracking open 24-year-old decision on entrance to Aspen

Public education campaign around decades-long debate and controversial history a focus for city of Aspen this year

A vehicle utilizes Power Plant Road to avoid traffic on Highway 82 over the Castle Creek Bridge at the entrance to Aspen in November 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Aspen City Council members on Monday expressed support in a renewed pursuit of the community understanding previous decisions regarding the entrance to Aspen and to gauge public sentiment on whether to act on a new effort as traffic into town continues to worsen and the lifespan of the Castle Creek Bridge is near.

Council agreed during its work session that staff can proceed on a $150,000 project that first involves a community education campaign around the record of decision rendered in 1998.

The record of decision’s preferred alternative signed off on by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration identifies the entrance to Aspen as a two-lane parkway that goes under the Marolt-Thomas Open Space via a cut-and-cover tunnel that has a transit component including a light rail system and ends up on Seventh and Main streets leading to Rubey Park.

While that plan has laid dormant due to negating public votes and conflicting political wills, the record of decision was revisited in 2007, but there was no consensus in the community to carry it forward.

“Since that time the Aspen community has a new audience that will need to be engaged,” City Engineer Trish Aragon told council. “There are people who were not here in 2007, weren’t part of that discussion back in 2007 so we will need to engage that part off the community.”

Updated schematics, drawings and graphics are part of that education component, as is a website and document library. Then there will be a print campaign, public open houses and videos.

Simultaneously, council agrees for staff to do technical analysis to obtain clarity around the current state of the record of decision, and engage with CDOT and federal highway officials to understand the risks of potential for funding.

Later this year or early 2023, there will be a community survey and polling.

The end goals are to determine if a reevaluation is needed to preserve the record of decision and preferred alternative; to determine what has changed since the last reevaluation; and to assess what can and cannot be accomplished knowing technology and needs have changed.

“We need to determine any consequences we may face with the Federal Highway Administration in opening up (the record of decision),” Aragon said.

In addition, the nearly 60-year-old Castle Creek Bridge is nearing its useful life, and the city will need to determine what the future of the new bridge will be.

A hint of a rainbow is seen over Castle Creek Bridge in August 2021.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

The bridge acts as the emergency egress that is critical for both mass evacuation and first responders’ access to the hospital.

“What I don’t think most people understand is if we have the Marshall Fire here, what does emergency egress look like? As I’ve started to learn about that, it’s frightening,” said Assistant City Manager Diane Foster. “Castle Creek Bridge needs to be replaced in the next 15 to 20 years, and if we don’t have another bridge, we’re going to be up the creek.”

Foster made that comment partly in response to Councilwoman Rachel Richards’ request that the alternatives to the record of decision that were studied by CDOT and why they were not selected be part of the education campaign.

“It’s not only to educate about the ‘what,’ it’s to educate about the ‘why,’” Foster said.

Richards said constituents don’t have long memories on what was contemplated more than 24 years ago.

“My bigger request for this process is that we really are able to talk about the alternatives that were screened out and why,” she said. “We keep hearing any number of these recirculating, ‘has this been looked at’ or ‘has that been looked at’ and it’s yes, ‘actually they have, and there are some reasons why they were screened out as not the best of anything.’”

Meetings with Snowmass Town Council and Pitkin County commissioners have been scheduled for early May, and the Elected Officials Transportation Committee will be updated on the project’s progress after that.

The city earlier this year applied for placement on CDOT’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 Aspen in placeholder mode if the community decides it wants to change the entrance to town.

Council members said Monday that while they might not support the record of decision, they are behind a public education campaign that brings the community and themselves up to date on what was decided and why, and what’s possible.

“I have low expectations,” said Mayor Torre. “I’m really happy that this conversation is up, I’m glad we are getting information, I’m glad we are getting everybody on the same page.

“I am very supportive of this process,” he continued. “For me, along with the public, perhaps it’s an educational process and an evaluative process, my support for this process does not inherently suggest my support for building a new entry into Aspen.”