It’s done, but does it work? | AspenTimes.com
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It’s done, but does it work?

Allyn Harvey

The firefighters like it. The ambulance crews can’t find any problems with it. One city councilman admits he was wrong about it. You could even call it a bus driver’s dream.

But whatever they think about the roundabout at Highway 82 and Maroon Creek Road, the legions of critics who were prolific with letters to local newspapers last summer still hate it. Not one is willing to “eat crow,” yet.

Aspen’s most ardent roundabout critic isn’t even willing to concede that it might be working. “I just don’t think there’s any improvement at all,” says Taylor Gamblin, whose witty and sometimes outrageous letters to the editor last spring and summer kept people on both sides of the question thinking about the merits and demerits of roundabouts.

Now that it’s built, however, Gamblin has a few after-the-fact observations. It should be wider, for one thing, he said. “If they had to build one, why didn’t they put another lane in there? It’s awfully narrow in there, especially for buses and trucks.” But everyone should slow down a little, too. “Traffic moves through so quickly – it can be dangerous.”

Meanwhile, former (1960s era) Aspen City councilman and (1970s era) Aspen Times columnist KNCB Moore continues to predict the roundabout’s eventual demise. “All over Europe, they have roundabouts with traffic lights in them,” he says.

Particularly irksome for Moore is the trouble he’s had getting answers from the Colorado Department of Transportation about how the intersection will be managed, and reconfigured if necessary, as demand grows. “How do we manage this intersection if we need a six-lane highway?” he asks. So far, no answer has been forthcoming from CDOT. `It’s working pretty well’ Like Gamblin and Moore, most other critics remain mighty skeptical. But some of last summer’s fence sitters – those who took a wait-and-see attitude and kept quiet during long backups while the traffic light was being replaced with the roundabout – are ready to deem it a success.

“Actually, it’s working pretty well – we didn’t think it would work as well as it has,” says Richard Walker, director of the Aspen Ambulance District. “I don’t know if it’s working any better than the old intersection, but I know it’s not any worse.”

Walker said the only drawback that he can see is the added travel time – two or three seconds – to reach destinations up Maroon Creek Road. A bigger problem for public safety officials is motorists who stop in the middle of the intersection, blocking the way for everybody, when they hear sirens. Aspen Fire Chief Darryl Grob adds, however, that people freeze up in front firetrucks all the time in all sorts of places, so it’s hard to blame the roundabout.

After surveying other fire departments that negotiate intersections with roundabouts, Aspen’s firefighters became the least skeptical of all public safety providers.

“What we heard from other departments was that an intersection was an intersection, and once people know how to use the roundabout, it will work as well as any other form of traffic control,”+said. So far, the fire department has had no trouble at the roundabout.

Neither have the people who drive through it most – bus drivers.

“As far as I know, all the bus drivers think it’s great,” says 13-year RFTA veteran Bob Andrews, who estimates that his job takes him through the roundabout 25 times a day. “It works better than the light did when the roads are congested.”

Like the firefighters and Gamblin, though, Andrews would like to see people pay a little more attention to the rules of the road when they’re traveling though the intersection. “The only thing we need to do is teach valley drivers how to yield,” he said.

Adding to the sense that things are working well at Maroon Creek Road is the fact that very few people are complaining. The Aspen city manager’s office has received only a few gripes, and most of those have come from a Castle Creek Valley resident who has been complaining for months.

The Colorado Department of Transportation hasn’t been hearing much either. “Complaints petered out as people got used to it. In the whole month of December, we haven’t gotten a single complaint,” said CDOT’s Karen Mulhall, the administrative assistant to regional manager Ralph Trapani.

But CDOT’s willingness to call the project a “success” isn’t enough to sway County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who cast the lone vote against spending local taxes on the roundabout. “I’ll be the first person to write a letter to the editor congratulating the people who put it in after a full winter season with busy traffic,” Clapper said.

Aspen City Councilman Tom McCabe, another professed skeptic, says his personal experience tells him that at times it works well, but at others, there is little difference from the bad old days. “I’ve been driving through it myself, and at certain times of the day I don’t see much improvement at all,” he said.

Ironically, many of McCabe’s concerns about the roundabout are shared by County Commissioner Mick Ireland, one of its most ardent supporters.

Part of the problem, they agree, is the traffic signal at Cemetery Lane, which backs traffic into the roundabout some mornings and into town every afternoon. Both point out that the full benefit of the new intersection may not be realized until the highway is rerouted across the Marolt open space, eliminating slowdowns at Cemetery Lane and the so-called S-curves at the entrance to town.

And even though he thinks a certain percentage of drivers who are particularly inept with roundabouts will always cause slowdowns, McCabe admits traffic seems to be moving “a little better.” Ireland’s a little more emphatic: “Ask yourself this: Is it better than the old intersection? The answer is clearly yes.”

Among those surveyed, the only true roundabout skeptic who is willing to admit he was wrong is City Councilman Tony Hershey.

“I’m pleasantly surprised. I was always hoping it would succeed, given how much money we spent. I’m glad it is working better, especially for the people who have to drive through it all the time,” he said.


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