Officials will use local money for roundabout
The final piece of the funding puzzle for construction of a roundabout on Highway 82 fell into place yesterday, even though there is a risk the money will not be refunded by the state.
In an 11-1 vote, the Elected Officials Transportation Committee committed over $1.6 million to the project. Yesterday’s emergency meeting came just two days after several of the state’s most influential transportation officials balked at requests for funding assistance.
Even without the support of several key figures at either the Colorado Department of Transportation or the state Transportation Commission, it appears likely that local taxpayers will be reimbursed.
Combined with a total of $3.8 million from the city of Aspen and Pitkin County and nearly $1 million from local development fees, the $1.6 million approved yesterday will be used to build transit lanes, and a bus transfer station and roundabout at the intersection of Highway 82 and Maroon Creek Road.
Construction is expected to begin Monday, but could begin as early as today, according to a spokesman from Gould Construction, the contractor on the project. The work was originally supposed to begin May 15 and end Nov. 15, and any further delays would have probably scrapped the project for this year.
“After our really bad day before the Transportation Commission, I was ready to say the heck with it,” said Aspen Mayor John Bennett. He was referring to a meeting in Denver Tuesday when one state commissioner said he thought it was clear there were no more funds for the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Let the highway go to hell and the traffic back up,” Bennett continued, “until the residents here rise up and storm the CDOT building in Denver and demand their share of state highway dollars. But I’ve since changed my mind. We have made a promise, a commitment to improve that intersection.”
Bennett’s frustrations with the project were shared by most of the others on the committee. But they were also willing to risk local dollars to ensure improvements at an intersection many consider the worst in the upper valley.
“If we don’t do this work this year or next year or wait until it’s funded in the Seventh Pot [state highway funds], what’s going to happen to this intersection?” asked Pitkin County Commissioner Leslie Lamont. “It’s going to get worse and worse and worse – it won’t even stay the same.”
Snowmass Village Councilman Doug Mercatoris added, “I’m ready to take this risk with our local public dollars with the hope that our greater, statewide public will eventually reimburse us.”
The Elected Officials Transportation Committee includes all of the elected officials from Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County. Most of them went to Denver Tuesday to meet with the state Transportation Commission, which manages state taxes used for transportation projects.
At that meeting, local officials were met with contempt and confusion from some of the state commissioners and staff members from the Colorado Department of Transportation. They were told that the Entrance to Aspen portion of the Highway 82 improvement was off the list of the state’s top 28 transportation projects (seventh pot projects), and funding to build four lanes through Snowmass Canyon was also in jeopardy.
The meeting left local elected officials dumbfounded, as money they thought had been committed to the Highway 82 project in 1996 was gone.
But at yesterday’s meeting, County Commissioner Mick Ireland explained that the state commissioners replaced Snowmass Canyon back near the top of their funding priorities. The latest list to come out of the transportation commission would delay completion of the Snowmass Canyon project until 2005, but puts it ahead of most other projects.
The state is currently grappling over how to pay for $668 million in highway projects with only $274 million. The $394 million shortfall has pitted communities against one another as they vie to put their projects at the top of the list.
“It’s a zero-sum game,” said Ireland. “If we get our money, other communities don’t get theirs.”
The situation has become so volatile that Gov. Bill Owens announced yesterday that he intends to drop a proposal to build a light rail system along the Front Range from his $2.3 billion transportation package scheduled for November’s election.
Owens hopes to borrow the money against future state taxes and federal highway funds to hasten work on several highway projects.
Ireland said it’s also likely $4.8 million of the $6.4 million spent building the roundabout will be recovered from a different source of state transportation funds.
Nearly $40 million in regional funding is available for smaller, local projects. The roundabout had not been included on that list, Ireland explained, because it had already been listed as a statewide project.
Ireland said he polled the voting representatives from the Intermountain Transportation Planning Region and found strong support to fund the roundabout with regional money.
“Each and everyone of those who I was able to reach – nine of 13 representatives – support us going ahead with the roundabout,” he said.
The roundabout promises to radically change the look of the Highway 82-Maroon Creek Road intersection. It will replace the traffic light with a concrete circle that anchors the center of the intersection. Traffic from the Castle Creek Road, Maroon Creek Road and the highway will merge into the three-lanes that surround the circle, avoiding long backups caused by the traffic light.
Drivers will enter in the outer lane, move inward as they progress through the intersection, and out when they reach the road they want to take. Roundabouts have worked well in Europe, the eastern United States and Vail.
The only elected official to vote against funding the roundabout was County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who has expressed reservations with the entire idea.
But yesterday Clapper said she could not in good conscience vote for a highway project that has yet to secure funding from the state.
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