Going with the flow … | AspenTimes.com

Going with the flow …

Charles Agar
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

It’s 8 a.m. and you’re already late for an appointment. You’ve been stuck behind the same dump truck for the last 10 minutes as your car inches ahead at a snail’s pace.Sound like the Entrance to Aspen?

Think again.On any given day, this type of traffic jam can be found in Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs as increased numbers of commuters and additional lights along Highway 82 leads to bottlenecks and frustration.The facts are indisputable: In 1996, the number of vehicles passing through Glenwood Springs every day – the average daily traffic – was 14,700, according to Colorado Department of Transportation statistics; by 2006, that number had nearly doubled to 27,300.The same holds true as you travel upvalley on Highway 82. At the Highway 133 intersection in Carbondale, 14,600 vehicles drove through in 1996; a decade later, the count was 19,600, with some daily totals as high as 24,000.And at the Willits Road intersection in Basalt, the number of cars traveling through has leaped from 14,800 to as many as 25,959 per day since 1996.”It’s pretty crazy,” said Ryan Etchegoyen, a painting contractor who lives in Glenwood Springs and commutes daily.”Aspen’s Aspen,” he said of the daily bottleneck at the town’s S-curves – a hassle rush-hour drivers have come to expect. “But where it’s really bad now is Willits, where they put that new light.”

Etchegoyen said that on some days, traffic is backed up for nearly a mile from the light adjacent to the Wendy’s in El Jebel. “That’s sometimes a 15-minute wait there,” he said.What all this means is that Etchegoyen’s 45-minute commute home is sometimes doubled; the volume of traffic at the day’s end, especially at the light near Wal-Mart in Glenwood Springs, often leads to a 25-minute drive from the city’s outskirts to his downtown home.”It’s just a convoy of people Monday to Friday,” said Etchegoyen, adding that many frustrated commuters roar through the side streets to avoid the traffic lights. “It’s pretty much out of control.” Of course not all commuters are at their wit’s end.”Really, compared to anywhere else, I don’t think our traffic is that bad. Go try to live in a city, and you’ll see what traffic is really about,” said Denise Taylor, a native of London who now lives in Basalt. “Everywhere you go there are traffic problems,” agreed Mark Thomas, a local comedian with Laugh Your Aspen Off who finds comic fodder in the exaggerated frustrations over area traffic.Noting that three cars lined up in Redstone can’t compare to 18-lane gridlock in California, and chances are you’ll likely know the person in the car next to you, Thomas said: “That’s not a traffic jam, that’s a family reunion.”But some area officials are concerned, especially when even a minor accident or closure of a single lane of traffic can cause major delays. “We’ve seen an increase in road rage,” said Investigator Bruce Benjamin, of the Pitkin County sheriff’s office, who lives in Basalt. He said while most commuters are used to the regular logjam, there has been an increase in people giving the “middle-finger salute” or shouting at other drivers.

Much of the trouble with traffic in the Roaring Fork Valley can be attributed to road design, according to CDOT officials.”There are several bottlenecks,” said Jim Nall, CDOT traffic and safety engineer for Region 3, which includes Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties. “We certainly have congestion issues in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, as well as the Entrance to Aspen.”Engineers plan to add a new light at I-70 offramp at exit 116 in Glenwood Springs, where traffic backs up onto the interstate every morning.And where Highway 82 bends onto the Grand Avenue bridge and the road narrows to one lane, CDOT engineers are making plans to widen the roadway to two lanes, according to Pete Mertes, a CDOT resident engineer based in Glenwood.

State and local officials in Glenwood Springs are also conducting a “corridor optimization study” of the busy downtown area to see what the best fixes are for traffic problems.Farther upvalley, CDOT officials are collecting bids to widen the bridge over the Roaring Fork River where highways 133 and 82 connect; construction is slated to begin in September. Also on tap: a new traffic signal at the Buffalo Valley intersection at County Road 154 and Highway 82, and a new stoplight at the Willits intersection near the Mid-Valley Medical Center.”It’s super-dangerous coming out of where I live. Right now you gotta’ Frogger-style it across the road,” said Chase Cook, a painting contractor who lives at Two Rivers Road and Willits.And while still frustrated with the long wait entering Aspen, Cook was thrilled to learn a light is planned for the intersection near his home.Of course adding traffic signals can be controversial.

CDOT officials wanted to put a light at Smith Way (the Highway 82 intersection near Woody Creek), after a study showed it could help prevent deadly T-bone accidents at that location. But public outcry put the project on the back burner; CDOT officials are now looking at adding an acceleration lane instead.”Any time you add another light, you take away from highway capacity. You’re adding delay to the system,” said Brian Pettet, Pitkin County public works director. “It’s a balance of making the system work effectively and making the main line as efficient as possible.”An important part of that planning is signal-timing – a way to ensure that a driver traveling the speed limit will not be stopped at every light along Highway 82. But Pettet said many of the lights are triggered by side-street traffic, so finding that right balance is an ongoing process.”It’s a balancing act working with our planning partners,” Nall agreed.And while new large developments – a big-box store, for example – can be asked to pay for a light or highway access points, most growth in the valley is on a smaller scale, making it difficult to charge individual developers, Nall said.

And then there is the problem of just too many cars.”You cannot build enough capacity to keep up with our population growth or vehicle numbers,” Pettet said.If Interstate 70 from Denver was built to the capacity of weekend skier traffic, for example, six lanes would be filled as quickly as they were built, Pettet said.”You need to incentivize mass transit and disincentivize the private automobile,” Pettet said.”We’re going from a rural area to an urban area, and we’re just facing growth pains,” Nall added. “It’s a fact of life with that urbanization. I think transit is a very viable solution along the 82 corridor.””I think we always have to be mindful of the ability for transit to take some of that additional capacity needs,” agreed CDOT program engineer Joe Elsen. “You can’t pave your way out of congestion.”Pettet said Aspen city planners have successfully used punitive measures, or “disincentives,” such as paid parking in the downtown core, as well as incentives such as free parking at the Brush Creek lot outside Aspen and free buses within the town and to Snowmass Village.

The weight of the mass-transit piece of the puzzle falls to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority; officials there say they’re up for the task.”We’ve seen traffic growing at these pinch-point areas. In general we are experiencing some longer delays,” said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship. “In the last year or two years [traffic] has gradually been creeping above the 1994 levels in the winter and summertime.”With the current booming economy and development, traffic counts through the Snowmass Canyon, for example, showed a more than 5 percent increase. That, coupled with construction on the Maroon Creek bridge, means traffic at least looks worse than ever.”Transit doesn’t have to take everybody off the road,” Blankenship said, but continued growth in RFTA ridership, particularly near Aspen where RFTA accounts for 20 to 30 percent of people trips, has helped get some drivers out of their cars.”The forecast and the trends indicate it’s going to grow over time,” Blankenship said. “And there’s a point where you reach a level of service that degrades the traffic.”Blankenship cited a study that said that if Americans would increase public transit use from the current 2 percent of commuters to 10 percent – which would mean every American taking the bus to work one day each week – we would reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 40 percent.He pointed to the Bus Rapid Transit program – a $25 million RFTA plan to incentivize ridership -as a move in that direction.

“What we’re really looking to do is layer on a variety of very streamlined services that are frequent and have travel times that are competitive with the automobile,” Blankenship said.The plan includes an increase in express buses between Aspen and Glenwood, which will use exclusive bus lanes from the Aspen roundabout to Buttermilk, as well as right-turn lanes farther down the highway to bypass bottlenecks.New park-and-rides, an electronic payment system (say goodbye to punch passes) and a computer-aided dispatch system that would monitor where buses were needed to increase the flow are also on the horizon.”Eventually, the bus might actually be faster,” Blankenship said, especially in the stretch from El Jebel and Basalt to Aspen.”My hope is that we can develop our services to the point that there will be an attractive, reliable, safe, convenient alternative to automobile usage,” Blankenship said.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com