City officials look to Aspen schools to help ease traffic
Aspen’s elected officials want to curb traffic levels on Maroon Creek and Castle Creek roads and improve flow through the roundabout at the entrance to town, and they are looking to the school district to help parents and students get out of their cars.
Aspen City Council last week discussed a number of issues related to parking and transportation, including traffic associated with the school district, and how students and parents are contributing to the problem.
“What’s the rationale for allowing students to drive?” Councilman Skippy Mesirow asked during the discussion with Mitch Osur, the city’s director of parking.
The question was initially met with laughter from some in council chambers, but was followed up with a response from Osur.
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“My philosophy would be if you are a senior you get parking but only if they carpool,” he said.
The conversation was in the context of a newly elected council learning what the responsibilities are of the city’s parking department as part of a 2020 budget work session.
The parking department monitors the surface lot of the Aspen Recreation Center, which used to be a spot where students would park and walk to campus.
Students use the Tiehack lot at the base of Buttermilk and across a bridge from the recreation center.
It remains largely unmonitored by the homeowners association that oversees the lot.
But it appears students are not the problem; 100 seniors get permits to park. The entire class is 139 students.
“How do you get parents to stop driving?” said Gary Vavra, the school district’s director of transportation.
Tom Heald, the district’s interim superintendent of schools, said a traffic count done in 2017 during the spring and fall determined that there was a daily average of 6,961 car trips on Maroon Creek Road.
Of those, 3,703 cars accessed the school campus on a daily basis — the majority of which were parents dropping off and picking up their kids, or making multiple trips.
It’s a decades-old problem, and has been referred to as “The Mommy 500” when traffic snarls at the roundabout with commuters during the peak times.
“It’s been a concern since before the roundabout (was built),” Councilwoman Rachel Richards said on Tuesday. “It’s always seen as adding to the traffic congestion in the morning and afternoon, and we’re asking, ‘Is there another way to deal with this?’”
Mayor Torre said he wants to solve some traffic flow issues from both valley roads and how cars are managed in the roundabout.
Council plans on discussing the issue at an upcoming work session, as well as a joint meeting with the school district and board.
“We have a shared desire to reduce traffic and CO2 emissions,” Mesirow said this week. “I don’t know the current situation but I want to learn about it.”
Heald, who has been in conversations for years on the traffic issue, and has been part of transportation symposiums and task forces, said it’s a tough nut to crack.
“If there was an easy solution we would have landed on it,” he said, noting that the district hasn’t gone down the path of limiting students from driving. “We don’t have control over what’s allowed at home.”
Heald said the district planned on piggybacking off of the city’s experimental mobility lab, where convenient transit options would have been available for the first and last mile of commuting parents’ trips.
The $3.2 million lab was abandoned for lack of support, and alternative transit options at the district fell off, as well.
So far this year, an average of 714 students have ridden the bus daily in the morning and 555 have in the afternoon, according to Heald.
There are roughly 1,500 students across the district.
Buses are nearly at capacity, Vavra noted, adding that could be rectified by alternating start times between elementary, middle and high schools.
Whether that’s feasible is up for district officials to decide.
“It would be a cost to us,” he said.
Heald said the district works with the city, and is a recipient of grants to incentivize teachers and faculty to take one of two available staff buses.
Just under 300 passes are issued to district staff.
Heald said he and district officials look forward to discussing options and partnerships with the city.
“We need to look at the pressures of getting on and off the campus,” he said.
Richards said options are out there; she and her colleagues have to dig deep to find them.
“How much money are we putting into transit and are we missing anything?” she said. “It’s a conversation worth having.”
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Wayne Hall took a job as an air traffic controller at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in 2003 thinking he would stay for a short time. Instead he stayed for nearly 17 years and was promoted up to the position of air traffic manager. He reflected on the experience upon retirement.