Officials skeptical of digging underpass below Highway 82 at Buttermilk
Area elected officials want more information before making a decision on whether to build a pedestrian underpass that would cost between $7.5 million and $9.5 million at Buttermilk on Highway 82.
However, while Pitkin County officials continue to push for the project, Snowmass Village and Aspen Skiing Co. officials remain skeptical of the benefits it will provide compared with the cost.
“I think we may get black eyes (from voters) if we keep spending money,” Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler said.
Members of the Elected Officials Transportation Committee listened last week to the results of a $40,000 feasibility study of the crossing at Highway 82 and Owl Creek Road at their regular quarterly meeting.
The 115-foot-long tunnel under the highway would be located just upvalley from the intersection that leads to Buttermilk Ski Mountain and would cause impacts to traffic, utilities and the bike path that runs on the north side of the road, said Ron Nies, an engineering consultant at SGM. It might take two construction seasons to complete, he said.
The price tag raised eyebrows at the meeting because a pedestrian study conducted during three days in March revealed that just 121 people crossed the highway during a three-hour peak volume time period and just 177 crossed in an 11-hour period. The recommended threshold for building an underpass is 300 pedestrians in a four-hour period, according to a memo from Nies.
“I’m starting to struggle with the cost-to-benefit (of the underpass),” Butler said.
And despite the fact that half of the 177 pedestrians crossing the road were Skico employees, Skico’s community liaison made it clear that the cost-to-benefit for the company also is not there.
“These numbers are a tiny percentage of the skiers who use Buttermilk,” Skico’s Michael Miracle said. “It’s not all that compelling.”
Skico probably would not be interested in chipping in to fund the underpass, Miracle said.
His comments led Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, to recall an accident at the intersection five or six years ago that seriously injured a female pedestrian.
“I’m surprised to hear you say what you’re saying,” Blankenship said to Miracle.
Blankenship also brought up the increased foot traffic associated with the Winter X Games in January, though Miracle pointed out that the Owl Creek intersection is among the most police-controlled areas in the county during that weekend.
Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper also chimed in with her own story, saying she had to put her hands on the hood of a car before it hit her while crossing the highway one time.
That led Snowmass Village Town Councilman Bob Sirkus to ask for more information about before and after usage numbers on other area underpasses, including the Aspen Business Center and the new crossing in Basalt.
“I’m not a fan of anecdotal evidence and we’ve heard a lot today,” Sirkus said. “I want real evidence.”
Still, Sirkus, like Butler, made it clear that spending possibly $9 million to benefit 177 people a day mainly during the ski season is a steep price to pay for limited benefit.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility,” he said.
Pitkin County officials appeared to support the project.
Clapper wondered whether building the underpass might spur more use, while Commissioner George Newman raised the possibility of increased future use of an underpass and the need to chip away gradually at congestion problems in the upper valley.
Commissioner Rachel Richards sought the middle ground, wondering if safety improvements could be made to the intersection without spending up to $9.5 million.
“There’s gotta be a step in between,” Richards said.
The $40,000 study — approved at the EOTC meeting this spring — also looked at building an overpass at Buttermilk. Such a span would cost between $4.5 million and $5.5 million, though elected officials barely considered that idea mainly because of visual impacts.
“An overpass is not part of this discussion,” Richards said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
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