Is there a bad traffic jam? It depends whom you ask | AspenTimes.com

Is there a bad traffic jam? It depends whom you ask

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

According to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, the current Entrance to Aspen is a major bottleneck for its buses.

Aspen mayor Helen Klanderud, however, sees the situation differently.

“That is not a major hang-up,” Klanderud said of Aspen’s rush-hour traffic jams. “I think the delay has been overexaggerated.”

But Dan Blankenship, RFTA director, said that from a transit standpoint, eliminating the S-curves would reduce the bottleneck getting into and out of Aspen. He said the problem is especially severe during the afternoon commute when fleets of RFTA buses are stuck in traffic trying to get out of town.

“That’s where traffic can back up on any given day and there is not much we can do,” Blankenship said. “We are stuck in that traffic and it is made a little bit worse that we have to pull over to the bus stops and then try and get back out.”

But two new lanes along the “modified direct” route ? or straight shot ? from Main Street to the roundabout would help the buses “move at a faster clip,” Blankenship believes.

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“Our assumption is based on the Environmental Impact Statement process, that travel times would be improved and traffic would be more free-flowing if there was the straight shot facility built, particularly if there were a bus lane built on it,” he said.

Blankenship feels strongly, however, that the Entrance to Aspen is a community decision.

“When I look at it purely from a transit operation standpoint, [the straight shot] is the right way to go,” Blankenship said. “But I am not a resident of the city of Aspen, and I recognize that the residents of the local community need to decide what to do.”

And, Blankenship said, the current RFTA board of directors has not taken a stance on the entrance issue because it is trying to respect the position of individual communities within the system. The members of the RFTA board include two representatives from each of the valley municipalities and counties that pay for the system.

In 1997, an earlier incarnation of the RFTA board endorsed the straight shot in the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Colorado Department of Transportation. That plan called for two lanes of traffic and a corridor for light rail running from the roundabout to Main Street.

In recent years, however, the board has been silent on the entrance, despite the logjam it represents for the bus system.

Paul Hilts, operations manager for RFTA, says afternoon traffic jams this summer on Main Street usually delayed buses from five to 10 minutes, and often as much as 15 minutes.

“Between 3:15 and 5:15, buses would generally run anywhere from five to 10 minutes down by the time they got to the Brush Creek intercept lot,” Hilts said. “It has a significant impact during that time.

“From a logical transportation impact perspective, certainly any relief from that situation would be an improvement and an inducement to use public transportation.”

And, as Hilts put it, the key question is, “Do you want your buses stuck in the current traffic jam?”

The answer from Klanderud, who is opposed to the Entrance to Aspen plan that Aspen voters approved in 1996, is essentially, “What traffic jam?”

“I am not particularly troubled by it,” said Klanderud, who lives on Aspen’s east side. “Everybody who has lived in cities knows what a traffic jam is, and we don’t even begin to approach traffic jams here.”

And Klanderud doesn’t think that an extra 10 minutes on the bus in the afternoon is a deterrent to more people using mass transit.

“I am going to bet that people are not staying away from RFTA because of the S-curves,” she said. “Quite frankly, the S-curves have not been a big hang-up. “

But that may be a matter of perspective.

“The people that it really makes a difference to are the riders,” Hilts said. “Those are not people sitting in the ivory towers pontificating about something. These are people down there using the system every day.”

RFTA is the second-largest bus system in Colorado, carrying 3.5 million people a year with an annual operating budget of $12.5 million. And Hilts estimates that 90 percent of RFTA’s passengers travel to and from Aspen.

Buses have priority over private cars and trucks up and down Highway 82 through HOV lanes and bus-only lanes. But the buses are given no priority in trying to get out of Aspen in the afternoon.

“In two years, you will be able to go from Glenwood to the gates of Aspen on four lanes or HOV lanes or slip lanes, but when you get there it will be the same old stuff,” Hilts said.

From Blankenship’s perspective, whether or not the current entrance configuration is costing RFTA time and money is not as big an issue as the community’s commitment to the benefits of mass transit.

“The larger issue, aside from the potential to have operational savings, is whether more people would use transit if it provided them with a time benefit compared with driving,” he said. “When you combine convenience in terms of trip times, and perhaps an economic benefit of fares being lower than the cost of driving and parking, then you have something you can market.”

And, Blankenship said, if the community is serious about reaping the benefits of its investment in mass transit, it should not lose sight of the benefits of a light rail system.

“In the long term, if the community wants to invest in light rail, you have the potential to eliminate noise and emissions from the bus system and have a system that is very quiet and clean and would probably attract a lot more riders than the bus system,” Blankenship said.

But again, he stressed that the debate over the Entrance to Aspen is a community issue.

“It’s more of a political question than it is a technical question,” Blankenship said of the proposal for the Entrance to Aspen. “From a technical standpoint, it is going to work better for transit. But again, I am not speaking for the board or for the community, but from a technical standpoint.”