Roundabout in jeopardy |

Roundabout in jeopardy

John Colson

A local parks and open space advocacy group is suing several federal, state and local agencies over plans to build the controversial Entrance to Aspen.

The 150-member group, called the Friends of Marolt Park, filed suit May 21 in U.S. District Court in Denver, alleging that plans to build the entrance violate federal and local laws and must be terminated.

A hearing is being held today in Denver regarding the Friends’ request for a temporary restraining order that would halt construction of a roundabout to be built at the intersection of Highway 82 and Maroon Creek Road.

The four-lane roundabout, which is being built using $4.8 million in locally generated taxpayer revenues because no state money is available, is the first part of the Entrance to Aspen project.

“We’re not after the roundabout,” said Friends vice president Ed Zasacky.

Although the contractor, Gould Construction, has not yet started work, Pitkin County Public Works Director Stan Berryman said construction must begin in the next week or so if the project is to be finished by the Nov. 1 deadline. The project also involves construction of a transit station.

The entire Entrance to Aspen involves a two-lane “parkway” with room for a light rail line from the Pitkin County Airport into the center of town, including a “cut-and-cover” tunnel under half of the Marolt land. It is projected to cost $36 million.

In a written statement, Zasacky said, “The group’s principal concern is the plan to build a four-lane highway and tunnel through the heart of Marolt Park,” a publicly owned parcel of dedicated open space at the eastern edge of Aspen. It contains a ranching museum and is used for a variety of public activities.

The Colorado Department of Transportation, after years of study and talks with local governments, plans to realign the highway. Instead of its present course into town on the narrow “S-curves” along Hallam and Seventh streets, it will follow a straighter route that would traverse the Marolt lands and cross Castle Creek on a new bridge. The road would then connect directly to Main Street at the Seventh Street intersection.

The lawsuit alleges that the Environmental Impact Statement and the plans to build the entrance project violate “numerous” federal environmental laws and the Aspen City Charter.

Among other things, the group believes the current CDOT plans are to build four traffic lanes for cars across the Marolt meadows. The Friends say that is not what was approved by Aspen voters in a special election in 1996 on the subject.

“The voters were told they were approving only two lanes [of traffic] plus light rail,” said Dennis Vaughn, an officer of the Friends organization. The group termed this a “bait and switch” tactic that violates federal and local laws.

The organization has been negotiating with local and CDOT officials, hoping to reach an agreement by which the lawsuit would not be filed now and interfere with construction of the roundabout.

But a source familiar with the talks indicated that CDOT refused to sign any agreement that would “make it any easier to file this lawsuit.”

“It is too bad that the agencies have left us no alternative but to file now,” said Vaughn. “While we object to the taking of open space, the roundabout may alleviate traffic congestion and lead to a less drastic conclusion than construction of the new four-lane highway through priceless park land, open space and historic land.”

Zasacky said the goal of the lawsuit is simply “to protect the park. They can’t go through the center of the park, when they have another right of way 500 feet away,” he said in reference to the current S-curves into town.

Zasacky also insisted, “We’re not out to block the train,” explaining that the group feels the light-rail system can be routed through the S-curves.

Aspen Mayor John Bennett called the lawsuit “a reflection of how unbelievably difficult is is to get anything done around here.”

City Attorney John Worcester, who is in Denver today for the hearing, said it will be up to a judge to decide whether the group’s concerns about a possible four-lane are valid enough to stop the roundabout.

But, he said of the group’s fears of an unrestricted four-lane, “That’s not what anybody’s proposing to build. All anybody’s proposing to build is the roundabout. The highway component could be a long ways away.”

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