State: No funds left for Hwy 82 |

State: No funds left for Hwy 82

John Colson

Colorado’s highest-ranking transportation official confirmed Wednesday that Aspen and Pitkin County are on their own if they want to build the “Entrance to Aspen” anytime soon.

But one local official, Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland, is hopeful he can find a way to make sure that local money spent on Highway 82 will be reimbursed out of state funds.

Tom Norton, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation and a member of Gov. Bill Owen’s cabinet, said there is no money left in the state’s coffers for work on Highway 82. Norton was referring to both the Entrance to Aspen (estimated cost, $36 million) and the Snowmass Canyon stretch of lower Highway 82 (estimated cost, $95 million).

“I think that’s correct,” Norton said simply. “We’ve put an excess of our original plan into the Roaring Fork Valley now.”

His remark was a reference to reports that the highway project has gone over its original estimated budget of $125 million and now stands at $185 million for the Basalt-to-Buttermilk portion, excluding the Entrance to Aspen from Buttermilk to Seventh Street.

But, Norton added, “There’s no question [Highway] 82 from one end to the other needs to be done.” It’s just a matter of when that will be, he said.

State highway officials are trying to get money for Highway 82 into the current “20-year plan” of statewide projects, meaning it would be funded some time in the next 20 years. But, he added, “That could be four or six years, it could be longer.”

Meanwhile, local elected officials continued to react with outrage at what some are calling “dishonesty” and a “bad faith” toward the Roaring Fork Valley by state highway officials.

Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris is angered at what she considers the CDOT transportation commission’s willingness to leave Highway 82 uncompleted.

“There was more concern that there were cracks in I-76” than over Aspen’s need for a new highway connection into town. She was referring to the highway commission’s trip to northeastern Colorado this week to inspect the interstate there.

She accused the highway commission of mismanaging the state’s highway construction and maintenance program, saying, “They’ve poorly budgeted the highway needs of the state.” She added that she believes the commission’s attitude regarding the Roaring Fork Valley is, “If they really want it, they’ll pay for it themselves.”

Aspen Mayor John Bennett, who with Farris and other locals traveled to Denver for a meeting with state officials this week, agreed with her assessment. He said local taxpayers could possibly put the money up to build at least a new intersection at Maroon Creek Road and Highway 82. That intersection has become a chronic traffic jam during high season months in recent years.

“We could temporarily [fund it] by borrowing from fund balances,” he said. “But we would have to be repaid.” He said that if Aspen, Pitkin County and the town of Snowmass Village all agreed, they could use proceeds from the countywide sales tax for mass transit.

But because that money is dedicated to transit, it could not be permanently used for a highway project.

Bennett bitterly recalled that in 1992, when Aspen’s poor air quality violated federal air pollution standards and threatened to derail the highway-planning process, local governments agreed to split the Entrance from the rest of the project, just to be sure the main part of the highway project could go ahead.

“We didn’t want Aspen to be the ones to stop the valley four-lane from happening,” he said. “They’re now taking our cooperation … and turning it around on us,” by insisting that the funding for the Entrance be separate from the funding for the rest of the project.

Calling the highway department’s position “such dishonesty,” Bennett went on, “It’s such a show of bad faith it leaves us a little speechless.”

State highway officials have recently decided they cannot promise that repayment of Entrance money would be forthcoming from state funds. The state transportation commission will be talking about that issue in an upcoming meeting.

Ireland, chairman of the Intermountain Transportation Planning Commission that includes representatives from four counties, said on Thursday he was calling other members of that group to see if they would agree to put the Entrance on their list of high-priority projects, called the “Other Regional Priorities” list, or ORP.

“So far I’ve got six yeses, six messages and one guy is out of the country,” Ireland said. “So far it looks good.”

If he is successful, Ireland hopes he can assure other local officials that they can go ahead and spend the $4.8 million to build a roundabout at the intersection of Maroon Creek and Highway 82, and the money would likely be paid back from state funds.

Asked if such a repayment is “a high likelihood,” Ireland responded, “Oh, I’d say it’s more than that.”

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