RFRHA calls consultant’s allegations untrue | AspenTimes.com

RFRHA calls consultant’s allegations untrue

John Colson

A consultant’s allegation that the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority altered a report on rail to meet its own agenda was disputed by the agency’s director yesterday.Dennis Stranger, hired by Garfield County to prepare a study of the Roaring Fork Valley rail corridor, recently tagged RFRHA’s report as being based on altered and erroneous data, among other criticisms.RFRHA Director Tom Newland disputed Stranger’s apparent conclusion that the comprehensive plan data has been altered to produce a predetermined result in favor of building a train system.”He didn’t have enough time to look at the entire scope of what we’re doing,” Newland said. He believes most of Stranger’s comments dealt with the draft Environmental Impact Statement and not the comprehensive plan documents.”All the things he talks about – us cooking the books, if you will – are actually examples of the assumptions we put into the model,” Newland said. He explained that the assumptions were based on information “taken from known sources” and “agreed upon through the process by all the entities involved.”Stranger was quoted earlier this week as telling the Garfield County commissioners that there is “a lot of blue sky planning that may or may not happen” in the comprehensive plan.The plan will be rewritten by RFRHA’s board after all the comments from area towns and counties are submitted and discussed, Newland said. And the final Environmental Impact Statement will incorporate as many of the comments as the board believes is warranted.For example, he said, the inclusion of the Glenwood Springs bypass, as suggested by Stranger, is not formally possible. Federal mandates require any such included projects be subject to an approved “Record of Decision” as part of the Environmental Impact Statement process. While the Entrance to Aspen EIS contains a record of decision, he said, there is no such document for the Glenwood bypass.”That’s not to say the Glenwood bypass isn’t important,” Newland stressed, adding that the bypass plan should be incorporated into the overall transportation planning for the valley.”We’re with Glenwood Springs on that one,” he said.He said that a preliminary copy of Stranger’s report has been turned over to the RFRHA board of directors for study. He said the formal comments will be included in discussions about revisions to the final RFRHA comprehensive plan.”It’s good input,” he said of Stranger’s remarks. “We like that stuff. To show us where we’re missing stuff, or should put in stuff, is good for us.” Why a consultant? RFRHA is a quasi-governmental body made up of elected officials from the valley’s counties and towns that was formed in 1996 to buy the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad right of way, which stretches from Glenwood Springs to Woody Creek. Pitkin County owns the rest of the right of way, from Woody Creek into Aspen.Stranger is a former Garfield County planner, whose tenure at the county was during the oil shale boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s.The RFRHA comprehensive plan outlines the assumptions, recommendations and concepts for the proposed rail system. Stranger reviewed an array of documents that make up the RFRHA draft EIS and the Corridor Investment Study (CIS), which were issued last year.He was hired a month ago by Garfield County to provide comments requested by the RFRHA board. The county’s planning staff was unable to produce the comments in the time allotted because of the staff’s workload, according to planning director Mark Bean.Bean said this week that Stranger’s report will be formally forwarded to the RFRHA board of directors by the county. Skeptical of RFRHA analysis Stranger’s report, which was submitted to the Garfield County commissioners earlier this week, is openly skeptical of RFRHA’s analysis.Stranger writes that the EIS and CIS are “driven by a single number: 24,600,” which is the daily auto count across the Castle Creek bridge in Aspen in 1994. Aspen and the Colorado Department of Transportation have both said traffic across the bridge should be held to that level, and that mass-transportation planning should be based on that goal.But Stranger suggests there is a better way to meet that goal, rather than build a train to carry workers, tourists and others from one end of the valley to the other. He suggests the governments of Aspen and Pitkin County “allow and make provisions for the development of adequate housing on the Aspen side of the Castle Creek Bridge for workers employed in Aspen and Pitkin County.”That way, he implies, Aspen and Pitkin County can shoulder the fiscal burden of taking care of the problem, rather than saddling the downvalley communities with the cost of a rail project.He maintains that the RFRHA reports are flawed because “a fourth alternative evaluating the consequences” of such a housing program “was not considered.”He also states in the report that of the “46 alternatives [that] were considered, the vast majority of the alternatives were ridiculous. For example, walking, individual jet packs, rickshaws, dog sleds and many more equally ludicrous alternatives were reportedly considered.” Rigging the numbers Stranger also is critical of the way in which the reports calculate anticipated traffic volumes on Highway 82. He states in the report that the “transportation demand model [a way of predicting traffic levels and anticipated uses of either a train, buses or cars] was also modified to make rail ridership more attractive.”When the statistics did not fit with Aspen’s stated goal of limiting traffic on the Castle Creek bridge, Stranger reportedly told the Garfield County commissioners, “[RFRHA’s consultants] wrote in the numbers they wanted to make it work the way they wanted.”Stranger’s report detailed a number of other “findings and impressions” about where he feels the draft EIS and CIS are flawed or incorrect in their approaches and conclusions. These range from questions about how the documents calculate the relative capital and operational costs of a rail system vs. buses, to concerns that the Pitkin County Open Space Board and the Aspen Valley Land Trust seem to be identified as having review authority over land-use proposals on land adjacent to the former rail corridor in Garfield County.He also suggests that, if the reports are to be complete, they should assign equal weight to plans for building a highway bypass around Glenwood Springs and plans to build a new Entrance To Aspen.RFRHA and Aspen officials have said they hope to use the estimated $32 million cost of building the Entrance to Aspen as the “local match” for federal grants to build a train or bus system connecting Aspen to Glenwood Springs.Glenwood Springs officials, in the meantime, have indicated an interest in building a bypass to reduce traffic congestion on Grand Avenue through town, and in using the right of way as the route for the bypass.

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