Aspen parks its $2.6 million transit experiment |

Aspen parks its $2.6 million transit experiment

Traffic at the S-curves on Highway 82 in Aspen of cars headed down valley at rush hour on Tuesday.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

The city of Aspen’s multiyear and multimillion-dollar mobility lab for transit alternatives to be rolled out this summer is dead on arrival.

“We have stopped all work on it,” Ashley Perl, the city’s project director for the lab, dubbed SHIFT, said late last week. “There is not a project called SHIFT in 2019.”

An initiative led by Mayor Steve Skadron, SHIFT was supposed to be a three-month experiment to be launched in June that would give motorists incentives to take alternative transportation.

It was to cost $2.6 million and had a goal of taking 800 cars off the highway into Aspen each day.

The city spent close to $300,000 in 2017 in planning to launch the mobility lab in 2018, but several obstacles, including finding auto sponsors, delayed the project to this year.

But with the mid-December resignation of Assistant City Manager Barry Crook, who was the department head leading the project, SHIFT was put on the back burner.

Interim City Manager Sara Ott said she asked staff to push the pause button until January and then evaluate what ideas from the lab could be parsed out.

But with the resignation of City Manager Steve Barwick earlier this month, coupled with a lack of council support in December when elected officials were faced with voting on an $800,000 contract with Lyft, SHIFT couldn’t live to see another day.

Lyft was seen as a key part of the project to enable ride hailing, ride sharing and data collecting, as well as the ability to rent bikes and scooters.

A majority of council voted to not approve the contract, after receiving heavy criticism from local transportation providers and bike shops that said the city was creating unfair competition for them.

SHIFT may have been the sacrificial lamb of election season. Three of the council members who voted “no” are running for office in the March 5 municipal election — Councilman Bert Myrin is running to retain his seat and council members Adam Frisch and Ann Mullins are vying for the mayor’s seat.

Frisch said while he had supported the project as it was developing, he became frustrated with the lack of public outreach with local transportation companies and others that would be impacted.

He had voiced his displeasure and said it should’ve been clear to Skadron that he might not have the support he needed to carry the project to fruition.

“One of the things on the mayor’s agenda is to make sure the thing is baked,” he said.

Mullins said her impression was that the mobility lab effort was told to council, and she didn’t always feel that the elected board was brought along.

“I think it’s important that the mayor be careful with any initiatives,” she said.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who voted against the Lyft contract and is in the middle of his term, said SHIFT failed for a number of reasons but ultimately lies at the feet of the mayor, since it was an initiative that he was championing, along with the City Manager’s Office.

“I think he was naive in the amount of support he had,” Hauenstein said of the Dec. 9 vote on the Lyft contract. “To have a vision is 5 percent; the rest is execution.”

Skadron said his fellow colleagues had expressed their support since 2017, so their vote on Lyft was uncharacteristic of their positions, especially knowing that hundreds of commuters valley wide had been polled by the city and they said they wanted incentives to get out of their cars.

“I had 18 months of ‘yeses’,” he said.

In an interview with The Aspen Times earlier this month, Skadron put it back on council. He said at the time that he remains firm in his belief that the overall community wants alternative transit options and solutions to the traffic problem at the entrance to Aspen.

“It’s incumbent on all council members to listen to all of their constituents,” he said in the Jan. 2 article. “I’ve learned that council responds to the loudest voices in the room.”

Whether SHIFT died because of politics, or that the community isn’t ready for out-of-the-box transit alternatives, is now what city staff is left considering.

Regardless, good ideas came from it and Ott said she hopes to keep them from collecting dust.

“I don’t want to throw out any of the ideas,” she said.

The Miles app, which the city has contracted with as part of a test prior to the rollout of SHIFT, will continue to be used among city staff to at least collect data about commuting behaviors.

Other contracts with data collection companies as part of SHIFT worth almost $400,000 are expected to be canceled, according to Ott.

The $2.6 million that’s been set aside for the project will go back into the general and transportation funds.