Preserving the past, preparing for the future | AspenTimes.com
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Preserving the past, preparing for the future

Eben Harrell

Maroon Creek Bridge, part of the main artery in and out of Aspen, is also a conduit to Aspens past.During the height of the towns mining boom in the late 1880s, the bridge was the deciding factor in the race to Aspen, when the Denver & Rio Grande and Colorado Midland railroad companies competed to be the first to lay down tracks into the city.The Midland gambled on a route that took it over the Maroon Creek gorge and eventually lost the race when the company got stuck building the bridge.One hundred sixteen years after its construction, the span continues to cause headaches. It is the oldest bridge still in use on the Colorado highway system (it was converted for automobile use in 1929) and has recently begun to act its age. The daily traffic of approximately 22,300 vehicle trips has taken its toll.Last October, due to major structural deficiencies, including a crack in the bridges bearing plate, the bridge was closed to heavy trucks while immediate repairs were made. Since then, Colorado Department of Transportation engineers keep a close eye on the structure, and problems continue to arise. Intricate monitoring equipment revealed scouring and erosion around the bridges foundation. Next week, CDOT will close one lane of the bridge to continue the repairs that began last October.Attempts to build a new bridge have been in the works since 1998, when city and county officials completed a transportation master plan that called for a new bridge.Building a new bridge wont mean demolishing the old, however. The old bridge is a cherished and protected historical monument and has been designated as such by the City of Aspens Historic Preservation Commission.A steel symbolIts hard to imagine the impact that construction of the bridge had on Aspens residents in 1887. Although not the first rail line into Aspen, it was the first standard gauge line (the D & RG line was narrow gauge), which allowed heavier ore cars to travel on its tracks. Up to 400 tons of ore per day were carted out of Aspen in the 1890s, making the town one of the leading mining centers in the nation.The Maroon Creek Bridge was made of steel in an era when most mountain bridges were made of wood, so it became a symbol of industrial monuments a mining town like Aspen helped create.The whole ethos of the exploration of the West at the time was man conquering nature. So to put a huge steel bridge over a 90-foot ravine was a real emblem, local historian Larry Fredrick said.Equally remarkable to the bridges historic construction has been its adaptation to modern usage. Since the 1930s, the bridge has moved from railroad relic to a modern-day marvel, the oldest railroad bridge still servicing automobiles in Colorado. It once brought silver, now it brings skiers.In another sense, the bridge hasnt changed functions at all it still provides the only real thoroughfare for heavy delivery vehicles to and from Aspen.When a new bridge is built, the old bridge will be restored to its original state. The asphalt platform will be eliminated and the bridge will be narrowed to its original railroad width. Tracks will be laid, and repairs made, in the hope that bridge might once again be viable for rail transit. Its not out of the question to one day see a Glenwood Springs-to-Aspen light-rail line pass over the old span.Shuffling bridgesFor now, a new vehicle bridge needs to be built. Trouble is, theres no money to build it. Since 1998, attempts to secure funding have been frustrated by tight budgets and funding cuts at CDOT. The construction of a new bridge would cost an estimated $25 million, nearly half of CDOTs budget for Aspens region. However, officials have recently become more hopeful.The Elected Officials Transportation Committee, composed of leaders from Aspen, Snowmass, and Pitkin County, designated $1.5 million to engineer a new bridge and budgeted $10 million over the next few years for its construction. The chances to secure money from CDOT also increased greatly last month, when the department completed a five-year study that prioritized construction projects statewide. In Aspens region, which includes Summit, Lake, Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties, the bridge was given top billing. According to Brian Pettet, Pitkin County director of public works, local officials are looking everywhere for money to supplement the local and state contributions, including federal grants and congressional discretionary funds.Aspen is an economic engine for the state. Its also clearly important to local officials. My guess is that well get the funds, but that the money will come from multiple sources local, state, possibly even federal, Pettet said.Although engineering plans for a new bridge have yet to be completed, there is a good idea of what the new ravine crossing will look like; it was laid out the 1998 transportation master plan.The construction of a new bridge is really a three-part construction process. Currently, two structures cross the Maroon Creek gorge: the bridge and a temporary pedestrian bridge. The master plan calls for the elimination of the pedestrian bridge (part 1), the construction of a new vehicle bridge that will include a pedestrian path (part 2), and the refurbishment of the old railway bridge (part 3).Constructed six years ago as a temporary crossing, the $1 million pedestrian bridge will be the first to go if a new bridge gets funding. The structure will be dismantled and saved for future use; it might even be used for Pitkin Countys Redstone-to-Carbondale trail, currently under construction.The new bridge will be four lanes wide, with two open lanes and two dedicated bus lanes. Officials hope the four-lane span, which will require an expansion of Highway 82 in the area, will ease congestion and provide incentives for public transit. A pedestrian and bike platform will be part of the structure, but attached on a wing from the main bridge. The construction of any new bridge by CDOT must first be approved by Aspen voters.The project will not be complete, however, until repairs to the old railroad bridge are finished. Of the $25 million price tag for a new bridge, $2.5 million will help rehabilitate the old trestle. For a bridge so central to Aspens past, this may be the most crucial aspect of the project. CDOT engineers will carefully examine the old structure for signs of decay and weakness, doing whatever they can to ensure this historic monument plays its role in the next chapter of Aspens history including the possible return of rail transit.Eben Harrells e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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