Entrance debate draws loud crowd | AspenTimes.com

Entrance debate draws loud crowd

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

An emotional roomful of Aspen residents piped in frequently during a forum Tuesday night on the Nov. 5 Entrance to Aspen vote.

The ballot issue that asks voters to choose between the current S-curves and a proposed realignment across the Marolt/Thomas open space properties is simply worded, but yesterday’s Squirm Night held on the topic was much more complex. The issue that has been debated for decades boiled down to an hour and a half of panelists arguing with each other and sometimes with audience members.

Panelists were asked to justify the estimated $63 million cost of the project, who the project could benefit and whether an “irreversible” traffic solution is worth the price of a parcel of open space.

Representing the Citizens for a Small Town Entrance, the political group that supports Aspen’s S-curves, were Citizens co-chair and Aspen City Councilman Terry Paulson, former Aspen Mayor Bill Sterling and Aspen native Mark Harvey.

The panelists in favor of the proposed direct alignment were Aspen City Councilman Tom McCabe, former Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards and Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland.

Representing his own interest in building a four-lane highway across the open space properties was Common Sense Alliance founder Jeffrey Evans. He was on a panel of his own.

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While audience members moaned, groaned and at times booed the panelists, a majority of the questions were directed at the so-called “straight shot” proponents, who were asked to define and redefine the benefits of a new alignment.

“All transit planning comes back to the Marolt property,” Richards said in her panel’s opening statement. “You can’t run mass transit through two 90-degree turns.”

Richards and her fellow supporters of the proposed alignment argued that the straight shot is needed for “40,000 people trips” in and out of Aspen each day and the gridlock that results on Main Street. They also said the straight shot will support the valley’s growing population and work force. The panelists said they support just two lanes for traffic on the new alignment. The plans, however, call for a road platform that includes two more lanes for a future mass-transit corridor.

But, as one audience member noted during the forum, since voters have rejected funding for rail and then lanes dedicated for buses in previous elections, that transit option is still an unknown. Nevertheless, the supporters said they have worked for the past decade to stay in line for state funding of the project, and that a vote for the S-curves could mean waiting much longer for any project to get under way.

And even with the mass-transit option currently unknown, Ireland said a vote for the modified direct alignment supports a “future alternative.”

“If we want to move to rail, we have to have the alignment. Rail will never happen on the S-curves ? it’s a chimera, an illusion, a mirage to say that it will,” he said. “And if the alignment fails CDOT will not want to spend $3 million to $4 million studying the S-curves.”

But the Citizens for a Small Town Entrance panel said they do not propose moving mass transit along their preferred “meandering entrance.” As Stirling put it, “voting for the S-curves is not an answer, but it’s also not a mistake.”

“Just because you change the direction of traffic doesn’t mean you reduce the quantity of cars,” he said.

Harvey added that many cities have tried to erase the effects of rush-hour traffic by adding more asphalt, only to find that cars quickly fill up the newly constructed roads.

“It’s like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt,” Harvey said.

Paulson added that a more viable solution for the entrance may be available in the future, as cars become more energy efficient. The proposed alignment is not an environmentally sound solution for traffic either, he said.

“Should we keep [the bottleneck] where it is now, or move it somewhere else?” Paulson said in response to an audience member’s question about the future of traffic flow in Aspen. “The bottleneck might move to downtown Aspen, and that’s the last place I need it.”

Supporters of the proposed alignment said the bottleneck has already reached downtown Aspen, which is why their solution is needed.

Evans fielded relatively few questions from audience members, saying that he “unabashedly supports putting four lanes through the Marolt property,” arguing that traffic will flow more smoothly with the additional room on Highway 82.

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com]