Responding through the traffic bottleneck |

Responding through the traffic bottleneck

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Apparently nobody can get through the Entrance of Aspen in a hurry, not even emergency vehicles blaring lights and sirens.

At a Wednesday meeting of the Public Safety Council, which includes emergency responders from throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, many expressed concern about planned lane closures while crews build new bus lanes from Buttermilk to the roundabout near the Entrance to Aspen.

But even when the lanes are complete, emergency crews are worried that exclusive bus lanes on the right side of the road will confuse drivers.

“The situation that we are creating here at the Entrance to Aspen is unique,” said Aspen Fire Chief Darryl Grob. “By default, all of us understand that when you see lights and hear sirens we’re programmed to pull over to the right and stop.”

But the clear bus lane planned from Buttermilk to the roundabout could be the fastest way to get to town, according to Ralph Trapani, a highway engineer consulting with the project.

Instead of running “code” of noisy sirens and flashing lights, emergency officials are considering responding to emergencies in silence to get a clear passage in the less-crowded bus lane under construction.

Safety council members plan to come up with an emergency management plan for the bottleneck stretch in coming weeks.

The bus lane project now underway will cost $9 million and is funded by the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, made up of officials from Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village.

This first section of the bus lane project ” from the Aspen Business Center (ABC) to Buttermilk ” is scheduled for completion the week of May 19, Trapani said.

The entire bus lane project, including designated bus lanes from Buttermilk to the roundabout, will be finished by Dec. 1, Trapani said.

When the new lanes are finished, upvalley buses will be separated from general traffic by two 8-inch white strips, and bus commuters can rocket in a clear lane from the ABC to just west of the roundabout, Trapani said.

Beginning at the ABC, there will be three upvalley lanes on Highway 82, including a general traffic lane on the left, an HOV lane in the center, and a designated bus lane (or “bus queue bypass”) on the right.

At the ABC, buses and drivers in the HOV lane will get an early green light (as they do at Buttermilk currently).

West of Buttermilk just before Harmony Road in the upvalley direction, HOV drivers and general purpose traffic will merge; from there to the roundabout, all cars will drive in the left lane and buses will have a clear lane on the right (with openings for drivers making a right turn), Trapani said.

From the roundabout through the S-curves to Seventh and Main, however, the road will remain single lane.

Trapani said the lane shifts during the lane construction will be a “challenging time,” and even when the project is complete there could be some confusion with the changes.

“I know it is going to be challenging for a while there because it is different,” Trapani said of the bus lane project.

And one challenge is coming up for a plan for emergency vehicles to get to and from the city of Aspen, Trapani said. He’s working with the council to come up with the best solutions.

New signs designating the right lane for “RFTA buses and emergency vehicles only” will help clarify the situation, Trapani said, but in the end, commuters will have to learn the system.

Chief Grob said he isn’t concerned about the fire department’s response during the construction phase.

Complicating the problem, however, is the fact that for the next two years, the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department will be housed in a new station at the ABC, while workers build a new station downtown.

There is one fire engine parked in a temporary shelter in the city for quick response to downtown fires, and Grob said he’s not worried about response time.

“We’re trying to figure this one out,” Grob said. “I’ll be much happier, of course, when we get the engines back in town, but it’s a work in progress.”

Volunteer firefighters, for example, can use the bus lanes to hurry to the station or to any incident, and fire trucks can either run quiet in the bus lanes or blare lights and sirens to clear the road, Grob said.

“This will be a work in progress for emergency responders until we figure it out,” said Sheriff Bob Braudis, who quipped that all highway engineers should be forced to commute on projects they design for a year after the job’s complete.

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