Light rail only across Marolt? |

Light rail only across Marolt?

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Local citizens trying to stop the Entrance to Aspen project from running across the Marolt and Thomas properties say they are willing to embrace just a light rail system operating on the land without the highway component.

Both Cliff Weiss of the Citizens for a Small Town Entrance and Ed Zasacky of the Friends of Marolt Park say they would support a scenario where the existing alignment of Highway 82 stays on the S-curves but a light rail line runs across the Marolt/Thomas properties on a dedicated transit way.

“I am not against a train,” said Weiss, whose house is right next to the proposed new alignment for the Entrance to Aspen. “I come from New York City, and I understand the value of mass transit. To me, personally, a train every 15 minutes is not the same thing as four lanes of pavement.”

The Entrance to Aspen project does not specifically call for four lanes of pavement, although the Colorado Department of Transportation has said it is open to building two lanes for general traffic and two lanes to be used as dedicated bus lanes. Proponents of an unrestricted four-lane have said if two bus lanes were built, it would only be a matter of time until they too were open to most, if not all, vehicles.

From his perspective as a member of the Friends of Marolt Park, Zasacky said he would not object to a light rail line going through the property.

“The impacts are far less than with a highway,” he said. “You might have a picnic within 100 feet of a train every 10 minutes, but you would never have a picnic 100 feet from a highway.”

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The Friends of Marolt are on the record as supporting light rail across the property, but there is a catch.

“The Friends did take the position that light rail alone through the Marolt would be acceptable as a fallback, providing that improvements to the existing alignment would be proved not to be viable,” said Lori Potter, the attorney for the Friends who is with Kelly, Haglund, Garnsey and Kahn in Denver.

“The Entrance to Aspen environmental impact study says that with stronger measures to reduce the volume of car traffic on Highway 82, buses could move freely on the existing alignment, and there are arguments that sitting in traffic is acceptable.”

In other words, the Friends might bless a train across Marolt, but only if and when they think the traffic jams on the existing or improved S-curves someday merit such a move.

And while supporters of the status quo on the S-curves say they are willing to support light rail across Marolt/Thomas as a compromise, neither group has taken any significant action toward making light rail a reality.

Aspen City Councilman Terry Paulson, an officer with Citizens for a Small Town Entrance, was a supporter of light rail during the 1996 Entrance to Aspen question, but has since focused on promoting the status quo of the S-curves. For the past several years, he has been content to let light rail languish in political limbo.

And he is not alone in his inaction. If there is still a group of citizens who believe in a light rail solution, they’ve been keeping a very low profile.

“There are still some very strong valleywide rail advocates, but in terms of light rail as part of the Entrance to Aspen, I have not seen or heard a word for a couple of years now,” said Randy Ready, the assistant city manager for Aspen who has been working on the Entrance to Aspen project for close to 10 years.

While it is a common political perception that light rail in Aspen was killed at the polls, voters in the Roaring Fork Valley have never been given the opportunity to vote on a specific, well-thought-out light rail proposal. A majority “yes” vote has not yet meant that a light rail system would actually be constructed in the valley.

In 1999, a bonding question was put on the ballot by anti-rail activists and presented to voters as simply a price tag for an unspecified light rail system. Those behind the question hoped voters would reject the proposal. They did, and it has been used ever since by those against rail as a tool to hammer on the perception that the community has rejected light rail.

But today, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is committed to a “bus-to-rail” strategic plan, and the agency’s long-range planners say a light rail system from downtown Aspen to the Buttermilk/airport area would be an excellent feeder system to a downvalley regional bus connection.

Such a system is seen by planners as a faster and cleaner way to move people in and out of Aspen to the point where they can transfer to express buses downvalley.

In addition, rail-ready station platforms have recently been constructed as part of the improvements to Highway 82 at 7th and Main streets, the Maroon Creek roundabout, the Aspen golf course and the Buttermilk ski area.

A light rail system has been priced to cost $65 million in 2001 dollars, and it has always been thought that such a system would have to be funded in large part with local money, which is not likely to be an easy sell.

The system would require overhead electric wires and five new stoplights on Main Street, which in the past has caused many citizens to voice strong objections.

In any event, entrance proponents say the “light-rail-only-is-OK” position taken by opponents to the entrance is just a ruse.

“Politically, it is not going to happen,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland, who supports the entrance plan. “The people who say that they will support rail across Marolt won’t support it in the end.”

The Entrance to Aspen project as approved by CDOT and voters calls for two lanes of highway and a light rail system running between the roundabout and 7th and Main in Aspen.

The third component of the project is a series of “transit demand management” (TDM) measures such as paid parking in downtown Aspen to discourage auto use.

The environmental review process used to arrive at the Entrance to Aspen project considered a scenario that left the S-curves in place but ran mass transit over Marolt. But CDOT rejected it because of safety concerns with traffic accidents on the existing S-curves. The agency also pointed to the relative inefficiencies of traffic on the S-curves compared to a new “modified direct” alignment across the Marolt/Thomas properties.

And CDOT’s Record of Decision clearly states that all three elements of the project ? two new lanes of highway, a light rail corridor and TDM ? must be implemented together for the project to work.

“It’s been very clear from the get-go that it is an integrated preferred alternative,” said Ready. “None of the three stand by themselves.”

And yet, CDOT has said it is prepared to build two new lanes of highway and phase in either light rail or two more bus-only lanes. So why not rail first?

“It’s a legal question as to whether or not you could separate it from the Record of Decision,” said Ready.

Owen Leonard, the regional director of CDOT, concurs with Ready.

“The preferred alternative was pretty clear it was an integrated project,” he said. “But I would want to go back and look at the Record of Decision to see if it ruled out that possibility.”

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