Decision by RFTA assists vision for an Aspen-to-Glenwood trail

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

RFTA’s board of directors set a precedent Thursday that could make it easier to complete a trail from Emma to Glenwood Springs.

The RFTA board voted unanimously to allow construction of a trail on 350 feet of the old railroad bed between Emma and Hooks Lane to avoid wetlands and an irrigation ditch. Disturbing wetlands would have required builders to acquire a costly and time-consuming permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Messing with an irrigation ditch could have opened untold problems.

RFTA usually allows use of the railroad corridor – the swath it owns on either side of the tracks – but not the rail bed itself. Railroad proponents don’t want the bed used for a trail because they fear that will make it more difficult to convert back to use for a train, if that time comes.

Trail proponents counter that allowing use of the rail bed in places where the terrain pinches close or where wetlands flank the bed is just common sense because it decreases the cost of construction.

“There are a ton of pinch points,” said trail advocate John Hoffmann of Carbondale. Using the railroad bed will bring about the vision of building a trail to Glenwood much quicker, he said.

Jan Girardot, president of the Western Colorado Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, countered that paving over tracks on sections like Hooks Spur Road and Catherine Bridge would close options for limited train use that could be occurring in the near future.

Steve Smith, a member of RFTA’s citizen advisory committee, noted that RFTA inherited a railroad corridor worth $8.5 million. It’s the board’s responsibility to protect that entire corridor, he said.

While use of the rail bed was allowed in that one small stretch, the RFTA board delayed setting policy and, thus, dodged the rail versus trail debate.

“We’ve got major conflicts,” acknowledged board chairwoman Jacque Whitsitt.

She supported making a decision immediately on the Emma to Hooks Bridge section and waiting to set the broader policy.

“I think it’s key to complete that section of the trail as soon as possible,” Whitsitt said.

That section is important to integrate the El Jebel area into the trail system. An existing trail runs 11 miles along the railroad corridor from Aspen to Emma, at the Pitkin and Eagle county line.

The MidValley Trails Committee has secured $122,000 from the Colorado State Trails Program to build the 1.16-mile stretch from Emma to Hooks Bridge, which spans the Roaring Fork River just off Willits Lane. From there cyclists and pedestrians could tie into the Willits Trail and go to the El Jebel City Market and surrounding neighborhoods. RFTA has pledged $80,000 for the project.

Ruth Frey, chairwoman of the MidValley Trails Committee, said it is too soon to say if that trail segment will be constructed this year. By the time the funds are secured and the planning is completed, it may be too late for construction, she said.

Several questions still cloud the vision of a trail all the way to Glenwood Springs. The RFTA board holds some of the answers. At a policy meeting on July 16 the board will decide whether or not to allow trail sections on the rail bed and how much funding it can set aside annually for trail construction. That decision is key because Garfield County hasn’t shown any inclination up to this point to help fund a trail.

Most of the remaining stretch to be completed is within Garfield County.

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