Rail: In the end, it’s a matter of vision – and courage | AspenTimes.com

Rail: In the end, it’s a matter of vision – and courage

The Aspen Times Editorial

After all that has been said and printed and shouted, after all the studies and numbers and meetings, after all the charges and counter-charges and lawsuits – after all, in short that has filled the pages of this newspaper, the air of the valley and the minds of the residents, what can we now say about rail?

It is hard to imagine that there is anyone here who does not already hold a strong opinion either for or against a rail system for this valley. Still, there are points that should be made.

Those who oppose rail seem to base their position essentially on their “common sense” perception that a rail system is simply too expensive. Rail, they say, is for big cities; we are a small town, a small valley. We just can’t afford rail, they argue. It will bankrupt us.

Plus, they say, we Americans love our automobiles, which certainly is true. And, they add, we have a fine bus system that can be expanded and upgraded as needed. And further, they maintain, a train would destroy the character of Main Street.

But rail proponents point to an overwhelming weight of evidence – studies, engineering estimates, opinions from people with actual expertise and experience in the field – that refute those anti-rail arguments.

The studies say we can afford rail. They say that, in the long run, it will actually be cheaper than a bus system, or at worst only slightly more costly. But we must remember that this narrow little valley is also a wealthy one. The economic gap between Glenwood Springs and Aspen is closing rapidly, almost as rapidly as the population is growing. It cannot be denied we need mass transit, and if the cost differential is minimal, then rail is obviously the best option.

Yes, we love our cars; and, yes, construction workers will always need to drive their pick-up trucks. But rail is a more attractive, more pleasant way to travel than buses. And trains, unlike buses, do not get caught in traffic jams and are not slowed by ice and snow. So, rail will likely attract more riders than buses and, more importantly, rail will take most of the bus traffic off the highway. Therefore, rail will make highway travel safer and faster for those who continue to drive – and make commuting safer and faster for those who take mass transit.

And, as for the character of Main Street, we must note that the dire warnings of impacts are much exaggerated – there will be no “sirens,” no clanging bells, no gates crashing down on side streets. Moreover, the impacts of a steady stream of double-sized buses are likely to be even worse than the impacts of rail.

And then there are those who secretly are hoping for an unrestricted four-lane highway into town, which experts say will mean even more lanes in the future, and more cars. This is the worst thought of all. Aspen is already choking on cars. Adding more is not the answer. And the cost of parking garages is astronomical – it is, indeed, far more expensive than rail.

But, in the end, all these arguments are just that: arguments. They involve emotions, value judgments, preconceptions. Perhaps all they prove is that the decision on rail is, based on numbers and facts, a close call. And, if that is the case, then there is one final basis for a decision. It is that much overused, but still valid term: vision.

Modern Aspen is an astonishing success story, created on the foundation of a crumbling former mining town by men and women of vision. The difference between Aspen and any number of other Western towns of 50 years ago was just exactly that: the vision of those who chose Aspen and made it what it is today.

For us to say no to rail based on any of the arguments against it, for us to surrender this town to an endless procession of cars and buses with no hope for relief would be a simple, tragic and fatal failure of vision. A failure of courage.

We must not let that happen.

Vote YES on Initiative 200. Affordable housing for Bass Park The decision on the future of Bass Park has, unfortunately, been made deeply confusing by the structure of the ballot. There are four separate questions on one single decision, questions that aren’t even next to one another on the ballot.

There are, to be sure, four choices of what to do with the small plot of green that faces Monarch Street for half a block, running south from the corner of Monarch and Hopkins. The property – which the city bought last spring for $3.4 million – could be kept as a park; it could be used entirely as a site for affordable housing; it could be split 50/50 between park and housing; or it could be sold to a private developer.

The best of these choices, it seems to us, is to use the entire small parcel for housing. It is a unique opportunity to create some affordable housing right where it belongs – in the heart of Aspen. We have all mourned the loss of Aspen’s character as a true community; bringing affordable housing back into the core of the city will help heal that loss.

Yes, Bass Park, as it now stands, is a charming little spot of green. We will miss it – but we will not miss it nearly as much as we miss the Aspen residents who have been driven out of town by the high cost of housing.

Vote YES on Referendum 2F to use Bass Park for housing.

Note NO on referendums 2A (no housing), 2B (half housing), and 2E (selling the park). Referendum 2C The “busway” question, appended to the ballot by a majority of Aspen City Council members in response to what they felt was an inadequate and deliberately deceptive rail question, has troubled many local voters, perhaps needlessly.

The busway, as it is known, is inherently called for as a fall-back position in Initiative 200. If voters reject rail, then we will get some sort of improved bus system. Unfortunately, Initiative 200 gives no details about that system, and there is a suspicion that its reference to buses is nothing more than subterfuge by those who believe our town’s transportation puzzles should be solved by building an unrestricted four-lane highway all the way up Main Street. The first step to such a four-lane would be building a highway with “bus lanes” delineated by nothing more than paint – and then lobbying to have the paint removed.

All Referendum 2C does is declare, formally, absolutely and in some detail, that creating this new bus system will mean much more than simply buying a few more of the same old RFTA buses and ramping up the schedule a little bit. It declares that the busway, among other things, will be a “permanently dedicated exclusive busway.”

The new system envisioned in 2C would be tailored to the needs of the town, meaning it would incorporate cleaner-burning buses, more user-friendly bus stops, permanently dedicated lanes, and in general be a bus system that would do everything possible to attract riders and cut down on the numbers of private, one-person automobile trips into Aspen.

There is one troubling aspect to Question 2C, though. Buried deep in the complex language, it says that the money can only be used for a busway if the voters of Pitkin County agree to set aside money to ultimately convert the bus system to rail. Proponents say this mirrors the language of the Entrance To Aspen Record of Decision, and is exactly what the Colorado Department of Transportation wants to see happen.

That may be true, and it is the most logical course for our community to take. But some voters are disturbed by this seeming “Trojan Pony” in the ballot – by voting for the bus, voters actually will be endorsing rail in the future. In the interest of clarity, it should be pointed out that those unalterably opposed to rail will not vote for this busway. But those who are comfortable with the idea of an “interim” busway leading ultimately to rail, even if they are skeptical that the rail system is needed or even feasible now, should be comfortable with this question.

The best thing for a voter to do, then, is to vote “yes” on 2C, as well as voting “yes” on Initiative 200. It still leaves open the question of whether we will end up with a bus or a train, but gives local government a clear signal that the electorate is solidly behind mass transit in some form and opposed to the prospect of four lanes of unrestricted traffic slam into Main Street every day.

Vote “Yes” on Referendum 2C. Referendum 2I (Advisory Question A) This is the first of a series of three rather unfortunate questions, placed on the ballot in a fit of reactive pique and without a lot of forethought.

These questions are written in such a way that, for each question, there is really only one possible response from any thoughtful voter, and as such are obviously self-serving and mildly insulting to the voters’ intelligence, besides being strictly advisory and thus having no legal weight whatsoever.

Still, it is likely that they will provide further evidence that the city’s electorate is strongly in favor of mass-transit solutions to our traffic problems. As such, they should not be simply ignored.

For Advisory Question A, given the fact that it is nearly incomprehensible to imagine more traffic coming across Castle Creek into Aspen, voters are advised to check the “Yes” box next to sub-question 1, calling for traffic to be limited to today’s numbers, and “No” for the following three questions.

Vote “Yes” to limit traffic to today’s numbers. Referendum 2J (Advisory Question B) Since the idea of underground parking lots beneath Wagner Park, Paepcke Park or any other location is unacceptable, as is the idea of further clogging residential streets for commuter parking, the logical answer here is a “yes” on number three and “no” votes on one and two.

Vote “Yes” for mass transit and against underground parking garages. Referendum 2-K (Advisory Question C) The hope is that the outcome called for in this ballot item will once and for all answer the overarching question of whether we end up with a commuter train or a busway.

Vote “Yes” for a public bonding authorization vote in 2000. Statewide Referendum A It must be said at the outset that this is a poorly conceived ballot question. It fails to provide needed information about exactly how the money is to be spent and how it is to be paid back, as well as being based on an uncertain source of federal funds, which may result in abnormally high interest payments.

This is a desperation move by Gov. Bill Owens and the Colorado Department of Transportation, who have failed to adequately plan for changes in the state’s transportation situation. It represents a lack of vision for the future, in its reliance on highway construction without a concurrent focus on mass-transit improvements. Finally, it represents a form of blackmail with regard to rural highway projects, such as the expansion of Highway 82 to four lanes and others, since it is implied that if we don’t support Owens’ referendum we will be stuck with half-completed highway projects for an untold amount of time.

That said, Referendum A may be this region’s last chance to have an impact on whether Highway 82 and other critical projects will be finished any time soon.

So, while there are many unanswered questions associated with this bond, and it may yet blow up in the state’s collective face, it looks like right now, with our own best interests in mind, we should support the TRANS question.

Vote a reluctant “Yes” on statewide Referendum A Referendum 1A (Pitkin County Open Space) This is one of those rare ballot questions that see almost no opposition from any quarter, and for good reason. The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program has clearly been one of the most popular and successful aspects of county government since it was created almost a decade ago.

The preservation and reservation of open lands that otherwise might be developed is something that deserves our continued and increasing support. If ever there is a good reason for us to go along with increased taxes, this is one.

Vote “Yes” on Referendum 1A Referendum 1B (Pitkin County charter amendment) This is a pretty basic housekeeping measure that will bring Pitkin County’s public notice requirements, regarding actions taken by the county commissioners, into line with those of state law.

Vote “Yes” on Referendum 1B Referendum 2D This is one of those periodic “de-Brucing” questions that ask voters if the city can hang onto excess property tax revenues for specific needs. In this case the city hopes to keep $158,000 and use it for needed pedestrian improvements around town. The alternative, to return the money to each taxpayer in town, would be costly to the city and the amounts involved would mean next to nothing to the individual taxpayer.

Vote “Yes” on Referendum 2D Referendum 2G (Burlingame property sale) The city let it be known almost as soon as it bought Burlingame Ranch that part of it would be sold for private development to offset the costs of building affordable housing at the base of Deer Hill, and that’s what this is.

Vote “Yes” on Referendum 2H Referendum 3A (Roaring Fork School District tax hike) The Roaring Fork School District (Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt) need to raise its mil levy to buy computers and other high-tech gear, raise teacher salaries and hire some new teachers, all of which are laudable goals for a school district.

Vote “Yes” on Referendum 3A Referendum 5A (Aspen Fire Protection District revenues) This is another “de-Brucing” question, which would forever take the Aspen Fire District out from under the limitations set by the controversial Taxpayer Bill of Rights, passed by Colorado voters several years ago. The TABOR amendment was an anti-government move and has done nothing but harm in most small taxing districts, and should be repealed.

Vote “Yes” on Referendum 5A Referendum 5B (Aspen Fire Protection District term limits) Legislated term limits, such as those imposed by a recent Colorado constitutional amendment, are an affront to the intelligence of the voters, and should be eliminated in all cases.

Vote “Yes” on Referendum 5B


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