Owens: Entrance was never a state priority | AspenTimes.com

Owens: Entrance was never a state priority

Allyn Harvey

The Entrance to Aspen has never been slated for state funding, Gov. Bill Owens and state Rep. Russell George said yesterday, and they’re not sure why local officials in the upper valley ever thought it was.

Owens and House Speaker George are the latest and most influential state leaders to insist that the final leg of the Highway 82 four-lane project is not on a list of the state’s high-priority projects. And even if state voters pass a $2.3 billion highway funding package this fall, neither the governor nor the speaker was willing to promise money for the entrance.

“I know that much of Highway 82 is covered by the Seventh Pot [state highway funds], such as Snowmass Canyon, but it’s never been my understanding that the Entrance to Aspen was part of that project,” Owens said yesterday during an interview with The Aspen Times.

Owens, traveling in northwestern Colorado, stopped in Glenwood Springs Monday, where he was joined by George.

“I don’t think the money for construction for the entrance has ever been flagged,” added George, who represents much of Pitkin County. “I don’t know where that idea has surfaced. I know there’s certainly been a lot of controversy about it in the last few weeks, and we’re going to get to the bottom of that.”

The lack of funding and commitment from the state’s top officials may leave the upper valley with just two lanes of traffic between Buttermilk and downtown Aspen, mired in gridlock for years to come.

County and city officials have been quick in recent weeks to point out that the cost of the entrance, currently estimated at $38 million, is too much for local taxpayers to cover, and well beyond local governments’ bonding authority. Without the highway work that is part of the entrance, including new bridges over Maroon Creek and Castle Creek, it is impossible to build either a light rail or bus-only transit lanes into town.

Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland, who represents the county on a regional transportation committee, said he has been under the impression the Entrance to Aspen was listed as one of the state’s top 28 highway projects, with only the timing of funding to be determined.

The question now, Ireland says, is whether state funding would be forthcoming if voters approve the governor’s package.

“It just seems absurd to spend $184 million on improving the highway and then leave part of it undone,” Ireland said.

But George pointed out that Highway 82 is just one of several projects looking for money from the so-called seventh-pot highway funds. In spite of a statewide funding shortfall that has existed for several years, George points out that work in the Roaring Fork Valley has continued.

“The transportation commission has been very good about keeping construction dollars flowing on the Highway 82 project, but the whole emphasis has been on getting the hard parts done,” George said. “And Aspen and Pitkin County have been trying to work out ways they can finish the entrance.”

Seventh-pot funds are highway construction dollars that have been earmarked by the state highway commission for 28 high-priority projects. The name “seventh pot” comes from the fact that the state is divided into six regional transportation districts, each with its own budget (or pot). When the state decided to set aside money for the most important projects, it created a seventh pot.

Although that pot will be stuffed with $2.3 billion if voters approve the governor’s package, Owens was unwilling to say whether the Entrance to Aspen would receive any money. By approving the package, which gives the state the authority to borrow money by issuing bonds, the voters will merely accelerate the pace of highway projects already on the drawing board.

“I don’t know whether or not there is an opportunity to put the Entrance to Aspen into the seventh pot,” Owens said. “That’s up to the transportation commission.”

Owens said CDOT Director Tom Norton will visit the Roaring Fork Valley on June 9 to meet with local officials, and hopefully explain how the confusion over Entrance to Aspen funding, or the lack thereof, started.

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