City looks to relive history on storied Entrance to Aspen saga

With traffic levels in and out of town hitting fever pitch, Aspen officials want to educate citizens on where they’ve been

Cars wait in traffic on Highway 82 leaving Aspen beside Marolt Open Space on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The city of Aspen is committing $150,000 toward a public education and outreach campaign that will center around a 23-year-old record of decision from the state, which sets the preferred alternative for vehicles coming in and out of Aspen.

With frustrations about traffic levels hitting fever pitch among elected officials and residents in recent months, Aspen City Council agreed last week to the effort. Slated for next year, it will attempt to revisit the long and storied issue as a starting point for a new and refreshed conversation about potential solutions.

“There are a lot of new residents who are not familiar with what was studied, what was screened out, why it was screened out and what the current (record of decision) would do for our community,” Councilwoman Rachel Richards said during a Nov. 1 work session. “I think we need to really take a good hard look at those and reintroduce ourselves as it were … and look for opportunities where that can be improved and look at the pros and cons” of various alternatives that have been considered by transportation officials.

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.

If local support and funding is not available for that alternative, exclusive bus lanes can be developed but only if it’s approved by city voters.

A majority of voters in 1996 authorized City Council to convey the right of way over the open space parcel for a two-lane parkway and corridor for light rail.

But there was no political will or funding at the time to move forward with the preferred alternative. There has been no political will since then nor community consensus, as there have been numerous elections over the decades concerning the Entrance to Aspen.

A car utilizes Power Plant Road to avoid afternoon traffic on Hwy 82 leaving Aspen on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

If the open space is to be used for any other purpose, such as four lanes of traffic or two lanes of traffic and two dedicated bus lanes, a ballot question has to go to city voters because there is not approval to use the property for anything other than two lanes of highway and light rail, according to transportation officials.

In 2001, a majority of Aspen voters said no to allowing a two-lane parkway and exclusive bus lanes.

In 2002, the majority of voters in both the city and Pitkin County voted to keep the Entrance to Aspen going through the S-curves rather than the preferred alternative.

The city’s outreach about the issue will include a website where all of the Entrance to Aspen documents live, including the record of decision, the preferred alternative, the related environmental impact statement and other options that were considered.

The $150,000 also includes consulting services, a print campaign, a community survey and third-party poling of citizens about their thoughts on the Entrance to Aspen, among other outreach efforts.

“It’s education and exploration,” said Assistant City Manager Diane Foster, who noted that if a solution is to be pursued, the public needs to understand what the consequences would be for going against a federal record of decision and how not to repeat the same mistakes made in the past.

Refreshing longtime residents’ memories on the issue also is a goal of the city’s effort.

“The process is as important as the outcome and in this day and age, this topic requires extra care,” Foster said.

City Manager Sara Ott explained to council members during a recent work session why outreach is so important.

“We are relying on things that were produced 20 years ago in some cases, and it’s not really kept up with the modern times of how you disseminate and engage with the community,” she said. “It’s a higher cost because we can’t necessarily pull off the shelf interviews done by GrassRoots TV — (which are) still recorded on VHS, not even DVD — so there is a real need here to modernize the public education process around this project.”

John Krueger, the city’s director of transportation for two decades, said the Entrance to Aspen is not on CDOT’s 10-year priority list and would be competing against hundreds of other projects in the state if it were to move forward.

“It could get on a new list but we would need community consensus and elected officials’ support for whatever it’s going to be,” he said. “CDOT wants real projects that they can move forward with.”

The new outreach effort is to gauge if there is an appetite among citizens to resurrect the issue.

“The community hasn’t talked about it for a long time, and there are a lot of educational and technical pieces to this,” Krueger said. “To get a basic understanding, it takes some effort.”