One bridge, hold the entrance | AspenTimes.com

One bridge, hold the entrance

Brent Gardner-Smith

Let’s build the Maroon Creek bridge first and worry about the rest of the Entrance to Aspen later. Much later.

That’s the political shorthand that came out of a meeting Thursday of the elected officials of Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village.

The new bridge would be 74 feet wide and accommodate two traffic lanes and two bus lanes. The existing bridge, which dates back to the 1890s, would be left in place to be used again as a railroad bridge, should rail in and out of Aspen once again become a reality.

The effect of the elected officials’ actions could mean that two lanes for unrestricted traffic and two lanes just for buses would be in place on Highway 82 between the Buttermilk ski area and the Maroon Creek roundabout.

From the roundabout into town all traffic and buses coming out of the roundabout would be put back onto two lanes and sent through the S-curves up to Main Street.

That is unless another option is approved for the area between the roundabout and Main Street known as the Marolt/Thomas property.

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It was the first meeting of the three boards, known as the Elected Officials Transportation Committee (EOTC), since an advisory question on the Entrance to Aspen was posed to voters in Aspen and Pitkin County. The EOTC decided, with barely any discussion, to seek state funding for the $25 million bridge project separate from the rest of the entrance.

The new funding strategy is similar to the approach taken to construct the roundabout before the Colorado Department of Transportation had the funds to commit to that project.

Under the plan, the local governments might pay for the highway improvement upfront, and then the state would reimburse them for about 75 percent of the project.

Pitkin County spent $6.4 million to build the roundabout, and the state reimbursed the county $4.8 million.

The EOTC is made up of the three boards of elected officials whose jurisdictions contribute revenue from a half-cent sales tax to a transportation fund. Any spending decisions from the fund must be jointly approved by Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village.

At the start of Thursday’s meeting, which was rushed and harried, EOTC members voted to endorse its original mission dating back to 1993, which includes increasing and improving bus service and building park-and-ride facilities.

Its mission also includes spending money on a “fixed guideway public transportation system on a separate right of way (such as a busway, monorail, light rail, or similar mechanical transit system) connecting Aspen, Snowmass and downvalley locations within the Roaring Fork Valley …”

The half-cent transportation sales tax produces about $3 million a year, about half of which is given directly to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to provide bus service in the valley.

On Thursday, the EOTC also approved giving $475,000 to RFTA for new buses and to replace the leaking roof on its Aspen bus barn. It also voted to spend $30,000 to keep bus service between Aspen and the airport free, and $60,000 to help RFTA pay for a lobbyist to secure federal transportation funding.

There is currently a surplus of $12 million in the EOTC fund. A significant portion of the EOTC’s money was originally envisioned to be spent on a fixed-guideway transit system into Aspen.

The elected officials spent hardly any time Thursday discussing their renewed commitment to the EOTC’s original mission, perhaps because any discussion of a “transportation system on a separate right of way” leads directly to a discussion of the modified direct alignment across the Marolt property, which voters in Aspen and Pitkin County rejected in an advisory question on Nov. 5.

When it came time for the agenda item labeled “Entrance to Aspen discussion,” the board simply let Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland describe a scenario in which the EOTC could pursue building a Maroon Creek bridge on a separate track from the rest of the entrance.

Ireland said he had discussed the scenario with CDOT officials, and the answer was, yes, the state would support such a strategy.

“CDOT does encourage communities to phase projects,” Ireland said.

He also said there were three different avenues the upper-valley governments could pursue for funding the bridge.

The first is a $200 million federal bridge replacement program, for which there is intense competition.

The second is CDOT’s 2003 statewide strategic planning process. The Entrance to Aspen project has been highly rated in that plan, but Ireland said it could still take 10 years to get funding as a result. The third is a regional transportation planning and funding process developed by the state.

Pitkin County’s work on the roundabout established a great deal of credibility with CDOT, Ireland said, and that approach might work again on building a new Maroon Creek bridge.

After Ireland described the strategy, there was very little, if any, discussion of the matter by the 11 other elected officials in the room.

It was only after a member of the public asked for clarification on where the EOTC stood on Ireland’s suggestion that a motion was made and endorsed to pursue funding for only the new bridge.

No elected official brought up the recent election results or how the now seemingly abandoned last leg of the Entrance to Aspen fits in with the EOTC’s just renewed commitment to build a “transportation system on a separate right of way” into Aspen.

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