RFTA to allow E-bikes on Rio Grande Trail
Lower-powered electric pedal-assist bicycles, or e-bikes, will be allowed on the lower section of the Rio Grande Trail during the upcoming 95-day Grand Avenue bridge detour — and even beyond, as it turns out.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board on Thursday, after significant discussion and public input, agreed on a 6-2 vote to allow Class 1 and 2 e-bikes on the Rio Grande between Glenwood Springs and the Catherine Store Road gate east of Carbondale during the Glenwood bridge closure that starts Monday.
The Colorado Department of Transportation, which is building the new bridge connecting Colorado 82 to Interstate 70, requested the use of e-bikes on the lower Rio Grande as one way to try to reduce traffic on the Midland Avenue/Eighth Street detour route by 35 percent while the bridge is down.
“We want to see people using different types of transportation during this time, and allowing e-bikes on the portion of the trail from Glenwood to Carbondale is one way to do that,” said Dave Ehlers, CDOT regional commissioner.
But the RFTA decision essentially became moot when the board failed to achieve the six votes needed to pass a separate resolution that would have prohibited e-bikes on the Rio Grande for the long term.
That resolution was necessary due to a state law that took effect Wednesday that defines Class 1 and 2 e-bikes as nonmotorized vehicles. The new law, which had Gov. John Hickenlooper’s support, allows e-bikes on public trails, streets and roads unless local jurisdictions choose to prohibit them.
The failed RFTA vote means the state law now applies on the Rio Grande, at least for now.
The 750-watt Class 1 and throttle-option Class 2 bikes are limited to 20 miles per hour, which is the posted speed limit on the Rio Grande. That’s not the problem, the RFTA board agreed.
Of greater safety concern are the higher-powered Class 3 e-bikes that can get up to 28 mph. State law says the Class 3 bikes are not allowed, unless a local jurisdiction chooses to allow them, so that ban stands.
Still, RFTA trail managers admit there’s little they can do in the way of enforcement if someone is using a Class 3 bike, which are largely indistinguishable from the Class 1-2 bikes, especially if they are obeying the 20-mph speed limit.
“We’re out there every day, and most people are behaving,” Brett Meredith, RFTA’s Rio Grande trail manager, said at the Thursday meeting in Carbondale. “We do have some people speeding, and our main concern is the safety of all trail users.”
The speeding issue applies equally to people on regular road bikes as well those riding e-bikes, he and other RFTA representatives said.
“It’s the guys in lycra,” Eagle County representative Jeanne McQueeney said at one point, referring to the legions of road cyclists who often exceed 30 mph on the trail.
She urged leniency in allowing people to use all types of e-bikes, not only during the bridge detour but for the long haul, as long as they follow the rules of the trail.
“We have to embrace the fact that e-bikes are here to stay, and find ways to make the trail exist for all users,” McQueeney said.
Earlier this week, Pitkin County commissioners, in response to the new state law, banned all types of e-bikes on the portion of the Rio Grande that the county manages, from Aspen to Pitkin/Eagle county line at Emma.
That ban will remain in place until May 1, 2018, before which the county hopes to develop a coordinated policy with RFTA regarding e-bike use on the trail.
RFTA board Chairman and Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman was willing to allow e-bikes during the bridge detour, but he wanted certain safety provisions put in place along with that move.
That should include a lower speed limit of around 15 mph, and requirements for e-bike riders to wear helmets and have their bikes equipped with warning bells and lights, he said.
Temporarily allowing e-bikes during the bridge detour would be a good time to gauge the public on their use, and work to develop that longer-term policy, he said.
“It would be shortsighted for this board to make a decision on a permanent solution at this point,” Newman said. “To do this arbitrarily, we’re going to lose the trust of our constituents. I suggest we put in some regulations with this.”
Glenwood Springs has already agreed to allow e-bikes during the detour on portions of the trail that it manages, as well as other city bike paths. It’s looking at allowing them in perpetuity.
“This is a new wave, it’s what’s coming, and we need to embrace it,” said Kathryn Trauger, a Glenwood Springs city councilor who sits as the city’s alternate member on the RFTA board.
Downvalley members of RFTA have been generally open to allowing e-bikes on the Rio Grande, at least during the detour period when people are being asked to use alternative transportation modes as a way to cut down on detour traffic.
“RFTA is a leader in transportation, and we have prided ourselves in taking risks to be that leader,” Carbondale Mayor and RFTA representative Dan Richardson said in support of e-bikes.
Several e-bike supporters showed up at the RFTA meeting to speak in favor of allowing their use on the trail. Among them was a crew of workers from Gould Construction, which bought a fleet of the higher-powered Class 3 e-bikes for use during the detour and beyond.
Even the Class 3 bikes should be allowed, company owner Mark Gould said.
“These things are just as safe as a regular bike at 20 miles per hour,” he said. Just because they can go faster doesn’t mean users will be going that fast on parts of the Rio Grande where it would be inappropriate, he said.
Gould even suggested Glenwood Springs consider a 15 mph speed limit within city limits, where there are more trail users and different types of users, from people walking their dogs and kids on regular bikes to commuters trying to get to and from work.
Ben Elmore of Glenwood Springs said he has a bad knee and has a hard time pedaling a regular bike. He said he bought an e-bike so he can get around town more easily without driving, and navigate the uphill sections of trail.
However, Robert Streeter of Carbondale cautioned the RFTA board about the many accessories that can be easily obtained to make even the Class 1-2 e-bikes able to go faster.
“If you open the door to Class 1 bikes, you open the door to every class of e-bike that’s out there,” he said, noting that the original tenet of creating the Rio Grande Trail was for nonmotorized use.
Howard Stapleton of New Castle also said e-bikes are inappropriate for a multiuse, nonmotorized trail system. “It’s just a bad mix to put e-bikes on this trail. Trust me, you don’t want to be hit by a bike going 40 miles an hour,” Stapleton said.
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