Rio Grande Trail plan to see more scrutiny

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Courtesy of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

ASPEN – Plans to pave the remaining unpaved section of the Rio Grande Trail or provide an alternate paved route shouldn’t be rushed, members of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of trustees agreed Thursday.

Several options to address a roughly four-mile section of the trail outside Aspen have been the focus of several board discussions as well as numerous efforts to elicit public opinion, but some board members said they’re not yet prepared to home in on a recommended option for the popular amenity.

“It’s a big project, and it’s a lot of money,” said board member Howie Mallory, suggesting that the public-outreach efforts are not yet finished and urging the board to take its time in making a recommendation to county commissioners.

“This is going to be the single biggest construction contract that we will have signed in the 22-year history of the program,” added Dale Will, open space and trails director. “I do agree with Howie – it’s the last thing we’d want to rush.”

“It has to take whatever time it takes to get it right,” said open space member Tim McFlynn.

At issue is what, if anything, to do with the final unpaved stretch of a 42-mile bike trail stretching between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. One contingent of the community has clamored for finishing the trail, creating a seamless, paved link the length of the Roaring Fork Valley. An equally passionate group wants the more natural feel of the gravel segment maintained. The proposal that has emerged is something of a compromise.

The option that the open space program’s staff has recommended would cost an estimated $7.2 million to $7.7 million. The sum covers a number of components, including the installation of a roughly $2 million bike/pedestrian bridge across the Roaring Fork River gorge to link the Rio Grande Trail to a new, paved route on the Highway 82 side of the river that would connect into the Aspen Business Center. A bridge similar to the existing pedestrian bridge that crosses the Maroon Creek gorge between the Aspen Recreation Center and the Tiehack side of Buttermilk is envisioned.

The total cost also includes a trail underpass at Baltic Avenue, the main road into the business center, which several board members suggested could be dropped from the plan, bringing the overall cost down to about $6.2 million. New paved trails through the center would remain in the proposal.

The cost estimate also includes close to $300,000 for detailed engineering-design work that would be done next year in anticipation of construction in 2014 and about $700,000 to fix drainage issues on the four-mile unpaved stretch of the Rio Grande and resurface it with a compacted material but leave it unpaved.

If the recommended option ultimately wins approval from the open space board and county commissioners, the four-mile unpaved section would remain in place. In addition, a separate, paved surface would be added in a two-mile stretch on the Woody Creek end of the unpaved segment. That section is between the trail’s upper crossing of McLain Flats Road and the lower end of Shale Bluffs canyon.

In the scenic canyon, where steep bluffs exist both above and below the trail corridor, only a gravel trail would remain in place upvalley to Stein Park – about a two-mile stretch. The paved route would cross the proposed bridge to the Highway 82 side of the river at roughly the downvalley end of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport property. From there, a new paved trail would be constructed to the Aspen Business Center and through the center, linking with the city of Aspen’s existing bike-path system.

On Thursday, only board member Hawk Greenway threw his support behind the proposal, minus the underpass.

“I’m pretty darn comfortable with your recommendation,” he said.

No board members voiced support for paving the trail through the narrow canyon, and lead ranger John Armstrong predicted safety issues if bicyclists zipping along on pavement were added to the mix of trail users in that area. A railing would be necessary given the steep drop-offs in that section, the board was told.

“If that was a paved surface, I think that would be a nightmare,” Armstrong said.

“I certainly don’t think, at this time, I would support paving through the canyon,” McFlynn said.

Before making any decision on what to recommend to county commissioners, open space board members called for more information about how the project might be phased and financed.

They also suggested more attempts to inform the public of the proposal and marking the area where the bridge would cross the river to give people a clear idea of its intended location.

Will said he’d like to see the program put up $1.5 million to $2 million toward the project, with Great Outdoors Colorado and, possibly, other partners putting up funding, as well. Great Outdoors Colorado is planning a round of grants for trail projects in 2014, he said.

The county’s 2013 Open Space and Trails budget puts about $1.3 million toward trails. The program is funded through a dedicated property tax; about 81 percent of the proceeds go to open space acquisition, trails and maintenance, with the rest funding administration of the program.