Ireland’s opponents take a different road over transit | AspenTimes.com
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Ireland’s opponents take a different road over transit

Aspen Times Staff Report

Editor’s note: Over the next three days, The Aspen Times will be looking at the candidates’ views on some of the major issues facing the valley. Today we’ll look at transportation, tomorrow housing, and growth management on Friday.

Both of the people vying to replace county Commissioner Mick Ireland in the Aug. 8 recall election share something in common with him – they live in affordable housing.

But that’s where the similarities end.

In fact, both replacement candidates – Pepper Gomes and MaryEllen Schembri – hold very different views than the incumbent’s on several of the big issues that dominate local politics, including transportation.

Ireland is a strong advocate for rail, a supporter of the proposed Rural Transportation Authority, and is a major player in the highway-funding game. Gomes and Schembri oppose rail and the formation of a transportation authority; they also have different views about the role Highway 82 should play in the transportation puzzle and are critical of Ireland’s push to build a roundabout near Aspen. To rail or not to rail Gomes and Schembri are both calling for an end to government-funded studies of rail in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“I haven’t seen a study about rail from one city that convinces me that it will work in the Roaring Fork Valley,” Schembri said.

While she is willing to consider the idea in the future, Schembri says the demographics of the valley must change considerably before she’ll change her mind.

“Holding up places like Denver or Portland as an example for the valley doesn’t work. Denver and Portland have very different populations than we do; they aren’t relying on 30,000 people to fill their trains,” she said.

Gomes, too, thinks rail should be put on the back burner, perhaps for a long, long time. Before committing to something like a commuter rail system, he wants the highway expansion completed all the way into Aspen.

“Let the highway run for a year without the HOV lane, orange cones and flaggers up and down the highway. Let it run for a year so we can see what we need – this or that,” Gomes said.

Ireland has regularly voted to fund the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, the agency formed to purchase of the railroad right of way between Glenwood Springs and Aspen and study a valleywide rail system. And he is in favor of completing the study, even though he doubts a rail system will be built in the near term.

But Ireland can hardly be called a highway opponent, either. In fact, he was instrumental in securing the money to expand Highway 82 from two to four lanes.

Highway 82 was dropped from the Colorado Department of Transportation’s “significant corridor list” a few years ago, just as the legislature was considering which road projects deserved extra funding.

“Rachel Richards and I went to work and we got Highway 82 back on the list,” Ireland said. “The result was nearly $200 million. You could say that all the construction is our fault, but without it the valley would be stuck on CDOT’s $3 million-a-year road to oblivion.”

Schembri concedes that Ireland may be competent when it comes to securing highway funding, but she is nevertheless critical of his other major highway project, the roundabout.

Referring to the 1.5-acre parcel of open space that was used to build the “kiss and ride” bus stop across from the Aspen Chapel, she said, “It’s my understanding that the county is supposed to vote when open space is being converted to another use.”

According to Aspen Assistant City Manager Randy Ready, the open space at the roundabout and along other sections of the highway was given to CDOT in exchange for property known as Mills Ranch. No way, RTA Schembri and Gomes are also against the proposal to form a Rural Transportation Authority to fund and manage public transportation between Rifle and Aspen.

The RTA would be run by representatives from eight valley governments – Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale, Eagle County, Garfield County, Glenwood Springs, Pitkin County, and Snowmass Village. Under the latest draft of the plan, sales taxes would be levied in every jurisdiction to pay for extensive improvements to the current bus system. Currently, the bulk of bus funding comes from sales taxes collected in Aspen and Pitkin County.

Ireland and three other county commissioners have been vocal advocates for the transportation authority. They say it’s needed to solve the constant funding shortfalls that plague operations at RFTA, the bus agency.

“I don’t support the RTA – I think it’s one of 12 steps to get us a train,” Gomes said. He points out that one requirement to secure federal funding for rail is the formation of an independent transit agency, just like a Rural Transportation Authority.

Schembri is equally suspicious. “I’m against the RTA as it is currently proposed, unless the government makes a statement saying that it is not a back door to rail.”


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