What lurks below Aspen’s surface? Surprises unearthed beneath the streets | AspenTimes.com

What lurks below Aspen’s surface? Surprises unearthed beneath the streets

Construction on the new City Offices near the Rio Grande park on Wednesday morning.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Whatever lurks beneath Aspen’s streets is starting to surface, providing engineers and developers with an idea of what their predecessors’ recycling methods were.

They threw it in a hole and paved over it.

“I think they used what they had and didn’t have the resources to get rid of it,” said Aspen City Engineer Trish Aragon.

As Aspen’s aging infrastructure continues to be rebuilt, project managers are routinely finding things that have no earthly reason for being underneath the pavement.

“It’s really a hodgepodge and you never know,” Aragon said. “It’s random.”

She said when crews tore up Mill Street they found a shaft made of railroad ties; under Castle Creek Bridge there was a slab of concrete; and below South Aspen Street, contaminated materials from mining activity were strewn about.

“Every project encounters this sort of thing,” Aragon said, adding that even boring down wouldn’t give an indication of what’s underneath Aspen’s streets.

Most recently, the surprise was discovered underneath Rio Grande Place.

Aspen’s elected officials had sticker shock in April when they were met with what could be as much as an $380,000 additional bill to fix an unforeseen problem under Rio Grande Place, the site of a massive utility project that is necessary for the municipal government’s new office building.

When crews dug up the road, engineers in the field noticed “irregular soils” underneath, like tree roots and branches, mine tailings, railroad ties and other materials that are not considered adequate road base, Jeff Pendarvis, the city’s capital asset director, told council during a special meeting April 24.

“I think it caught everybody off guard,” he said. “It was unforeseen and unexpected because the roadway is in pretty good shape but now that it’s been disturbed and we can see what’s under there, the engineers in the room definitely feel that it’s prudent to replace.”

That means filling 2 feet of new road base material from Mill Street to Founders Place on Rio Grande Place. That will require between 600 and 700 additional dump truck trips hauling in over 4,700 tons of material.

“It’s a lot of dirt,” Pendarvis said.

Rob Schober, the city’s project manager, told council the bulk of the costs will be bringing in the material.

“It’s going to be a lot,” he told council.

Excavation and utility work for the entire project will likely require over 2,000 truck trips, Schober said Friday.

That does not include trucks related to construction of the new building.

Interim city manager Sara Ott said it’s more cost effective to fix the road base while construction crews and their equipment are onsite for the other work being done.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein repeatedly let Pendarvis and Ott, along with his colleagues at the council table, know his displeasure with the change order.

“It disturbs me that we are being presented with a $379,000 no-bid contract,” Hauenstein said, questioning some of the line items in the new contract with Shaw Construction. “I’m sorry, this just doesn’t sit well with me looking at the detail.”

He added that he’s been driving that road for 40 years and it’s not showing any signs of failure.

Pendarvis pointed out that typically the road experiences light traffic uses but with heavy machinery coming in for the new 37,500-square-foot office building, problems could arise.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins asked why soil testing wouldn’t have indicated irregularities below the road.

Pendarvis said soil testing didn’t occur in the right of way but only on the site of the project, adding that as more excavating occurs around town, crews will likely find surprises.

“We feel like this is a lesson learned on what we can expect on all subgrade work going forward,” he said.

And while there was likely no way to know what was under Rio Grande Place, the city’s asset department is taking responsibility for the additional costs.

“Nobody feels worse about this than we do. … We have egg on our face,” Pendarvis said at the April 24 meeting. “We always go into a job trying to do the best project possible so there is some soul searching going on about, ‘How did we miss this and how could we have done better?’”

Hauenstein also said during the meeting that he was disappointed that the owner’s representative for the city office project, Jack Wheeler, wasn’t present.

“I have to express my displeasure of not having our owner’s rep, who is getting a good chunk of change to advise us. … I think that is unacceptable,” he said.

Wheeler, the former capital asset director for the city, stepped down last fall and started his own construction consultant company and signed a contract with the government for over $455,000.

Pendarvis said Wheeler had been in all of the conversations and was onsite the day prior to the council meeting.

Ott and Pendarvis assured council that they would vet the itemized costs and try to bring the price tag down.

“It’s not a great situation and I’m not happy we are here either but it is what it is,” Ott said.

Council, with the absence of Bert Myrin, unanimously approved a resolution approving the funding for the additional work.

“It’s upsetting but it’s a pill I will swallow,” Hauenstein said, adding he doesn’t want to see a lot of change orders related to the city office project coming to council, and wants it on time and budget.