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Regional transit future closely linked to Entrance to Aspen

Brent Gardner-Smith

The elected officials of Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village were reminded Thursday that the future of transit in the Roaring Fork valley is predicated upon a transit component – either a busway or a light rail corridor – being built at the entrance to Aspen.

“A decision has to be made in the upper valley,” said Roger Millar, a consultant with the planning firm Otak of Carbondale who is working for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. “You’ve still got to decide what you are going to build.”

And in response to a subsequent question, Millar said “There are decisions that need to be made on the entrance to Aspen.”

Millar and RFTA are working on a draft environmental impact study for an improved regional transit system in the valley.

The study is comparing the current RFTA system with two options – a sophisticated “bus rapid transit” system and a valleywide rail system.

The bus rapid transit system (what officials now call the BRT) is emerging in the study as the most cost effective and efficient system to pursue over the next decade. The bus rapid transit system is based on the premise that transit planners should “think rail, but use buses.”

Elements of the bus rapid transit plan include more formal transit stations like Rubey Park in Aspen (which includes a heated structure with bathrooms) more commuter parking lots, platforms and ticket machines to help speed the bus loading process, and many other improvements.

However, the current RFTA study assumes the high tech bus system will either come into Aspen on dedicated bus lanes or that bus riders will transfer at Buttermilk and get on a light rail system into downtown Aspen.

Both of those options are predicated on the concept that either buses or light rail would be taken out of mixed traffic and would run on a dedicated mass transit corridor, which can greatly improve the efficiency of transit service.

Previous studies have found those efficiencies are difficult, if not impossible, to gain on the current alignment of Highway 82 over Castle Creek.

Without either of those options, the bus rapid transit plan “doesn’t have wheels” Millar said.

In 1996, the voters of Aspen approved a dedicated light-rail alignment from Buttermilk but that vote has been eclipsed by a series of subsequent votes regarding proposed bus lanes and the alignment of Highway 82 between the Maroon Creek Road roundabout and 7th and Main Streets in Aspen.

After last November’s controversial advisory vote on the status of the S-curves in which a majority of Aspen voters endorsed the status quo of the highway, few local elected officials seem to have the stomach for another round of discussions or meetings on a potential transit solution through the entrance.

Millar made his presentation during an Elected Officials Transportation Committee, in which the Aspen City Council, the Pitkin County Commissioners and the Snowmass Village Town Council come together to decide how to spend the proceeds of a half-cent sales tax dedicated to mass transit improvements.

The entrance to Aspen issue was not on last night’s agenda, but it quickly became the elephant in the room during Millar’s presentation on RFTA’s long-range planning process.

Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield quizzed Millar about the assumptions regarding the entrance to Aspen.

And he seemed somewhat taken aback that a study about the next phase of transit planning in the valley was assuming that the last phase of transit planning – the 1996 entrance plan – might have actually been implemented.

After Millar’s presentation, the EOTC moved on to other agenda items.

The group encouraged RFTA General Manager Dan Blankenship to continue studying the purchase of hybrid buses to add to the current RFTA fleet, it approved spending up to $60,000 to study ways to find more parking for cars along Highway 82 for either special events or for more commuters and employees, and it agreed to meet as a committee every three months.

But the EOTC did not agree to further discuss or explore any potential solutions to the entrance to Aspen.


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