Long commute? Just tunnel in | AspenTimes.com

Long commute? Just tunnel in

GARFIELD COUNTY If only Aspen had such a magical solution to its commuting woes.An energy company working in western Garfield County found a way to drastically reduce the time needed to move men, materials and equipment into the field. A company called Williams built a 4 1/2-mile road and bore a 3,200-foot tunnel into a mountainside north of Parachute to create a new way to access its natural gas wells in the Piceance Basin.The commute from Parachute to the gas wells in Allen Point will be sliced from 70 miles and up to two hours from Parachute to five miles and roughly 20 minutes, Williams spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said.”It cuts off all of the driving time,” she said.The route isn’t finished yet, but crews from Kiewit-Western Co. “daylighted” on the tunnel March 5, Alvillar said. They are stabilizing the tunnel and its approaches and hope to have it open within the next 30 days, she said.The road was built on private leased land. Crews currently haul drilling rigs and other equipment to Allen Point using a circuitous route on Highway 13 and other public roads.The cost of building the alternative route and boring the tunnel wasn’t more expensive than it would have been to “pioneer” roads to serve Allen Point, she said. Allen Point is an area of great promise for Williams. It has eight wells operating there and plans to drill another 13 this year. The success of the new wells will help determine future activity.Williams made the investment in the new road and tunnel so it could move machinery more efficiently. It really wasn’t a move calculated to help recruit or retain workers by cutting the commute time, she said, but that may be an indirect benefit.Williams is one of several firms producing gas in western Garfield County. The firm employs 150 of its own workers and another 130 through direct contracts, Alvillar said. It relies on subcontractors for roughly 2,000 workers, who are shared by other energy companies.Some businesses in Pitkin and Eagle counties are finding it tough to compete with the gas fields for workers.Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County, said the gas boom has changed the employment dynamics in the Vail area. Garfield County was traditionally a major supplier of workers, and that supply was counted on to fuel Eagle County’s growth.The Economic Council no longer believes residents of New Castle, Silt and Rifle will drive east for jobs in Eagle County when wages are so good much closer to home. Garfield County residents won’t be filling as many Eagle County jobs. “It’s like off the table,” Cohen said.Construction firms don’t appear to be suffering because of the competition. Cohen said the council has learned that many of the big construction firms are importing workers from the Front Range and housing them in hotels and condominiums.The construction industry throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and Interstate 70 corridor is booming. The number of construction workers in Eagle County soared 12 percent from 4,623 to 5,188 between the third quarter of 2005 and third quarter of last year, according to data tracked by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Third quarter 2006 numbers are the latest available from the state.The gas boom is helping fuel a rapid expansion of construction workers in Garfield County. The number of workers jumped 19 percent between third quarter 2005 and 2006. Employees went from 3,688 to 4,403.In Pitkin County, the number of construction workers increased modestly from 1,174 to 1,207 over the same time period.Rick Stevens, a partner in Aspen Earthmoving, said the firm employs about 70 workers in the field during peak season. The company hired 18 people over the last four to six weeks.”We’re not having trouble finding people,” he said. He attributed the success to the long-term opportunities, benefits and reputation of Aspen Earthmoving.Cohen said he wasn’t as concerned about the construction industry finding employees as other sectors of the economy. The Eagle Valley is facing a particularly tough time finding teachers, municipal workers and middle managers for white collar firms, he said.Stevens said lack of affordable housing is the biggest challenge to finding employees.”We all knew this affordable housing crisis wasn’t going to be just an Aspen thing,” Stevens said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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