Talks on Hwy. 82 underpass near Aspen hit roadblock
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
ASPEN – A two-hour discussion at Thursday’s meeting of the Elected Officials Transportation Committee failed to result in a decision on the location of a proposed pedestrian tunnel that would serve as a safe crossing of Highway 82 between the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport and the Aspen Business Center.
Planners involved in the $2.8 million project, which involves county and state property, wanted the committee to give its nod to a location that would be a few hundred yards upvalley from the highway’s intersection with Baltic Avenue. It would be centrally located between new downvalley and upvalley Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus stops and is meant to give pedestrians a safe way of getting from one side of the highway to the other without using the existing intersection crosswalk, which has been deemed slightly dangerous and insufficient to handle future growth.
But the committee, which includes all members of the Aspen City Council, the Board of County Commissioners and the Snowmass Village Town Council, launched into a discussion about whether the location the planners identified would best serve the needs of the airport and business-center area. They also wondered which entity or entities would have to pay the local match for the project, estimated to cost $800,000. The state would pick up the $2 million lion’s share and already has included it on its list of future projects.
Collectively, a majority of transportation committee members wanted to choose the spot recommended by the county planning team. A vote on a motion to endorse the location was 9-5. But because the motion called for each government entity to approve or disapprove of the plan separately, it failed because the Aspen City Council was split 2-2. The county commissioners’ vote was 4-1, with Jack Hatfield opposed, while the Snowmass Village council vote was closer at 3-2.
On the Aspen City Council, Torre and Adam Frisch said they couldn’t support the location recommendation because of a lack of information about pedestrian counts in the area and questions about why alternative plans haven’t been evaluated. Derek Johnson and Steve Skadron voted to support it, with Skadron noting that the planning efforts have been under way for quite some time and that he trusted the experts. Mayor Mick Ireland was said to be undergoing a medical procedure and could not attend Thursday’s meeting.
Because of the deadlock, and because the discussion was running well over its allotted time, the transportation committee voted to continue the debate to an unscheduled date in late April.
In the meantime, the planning team will supply committee members with information about student population trends and growth expectations for Colorado Mountain College, which lies about one-half mile downvalley of the proposed tunnel spot; figures pertaining to pedestrian users of the existing crosswalk; and renderings depicting how the designs surrounding the tunnel entrances on each side of the highway will look from a street perspective.
Planners stressed that it was too early to consider the project’s finances and urged committee members to focus on the location decision. But finances crept into the discussion at nearly every juncture.
“I’m worried about piecemeal,” Frisch said, referring to projects that are approved in steps until it’s too late to turn back. He said he didn’t want to be “locked into a decision that’s going to stop us from implementing the community’s wishes in the future.”
Snowmass Mayor Bill Boineau wondered if the project was even necessary.
“Why are we doing this?” he asked. “When I drive into the (business center) three times a week or so, I see people all up and down from the (area) crossing Highway 82. Do you really believe that this is going to funnel all those people into that tunnel location, or are they still going to do what they’re doing? … I don’t see this personally as a big issue.”
But County Commissioner George Newman said someone was severely injured crossing the highway a few years ago. Commissioner Michael Owsley said one pedestrian fatality at the location would be all that’s needed to create a tragedy and spark community outcry for changes.
Commissioner Rachel Richards supported the location question but added that more data about pedestrian traffic would be helpful before local governments tackle the future question of approving money for the local match.
Torre and Hatfield voiced the most concerns. Torre said he didn’t understand the necessity for building “plaza areas” around the two bus stops. He also said he wasn’t sure how the designs for the location fit into the airport’s future expansion plans, which could change over time. He added that he might support the concept in the near future but only after gaining more information.
After hearing from representatives of the business center and the community college – both of whom had various concerns about the tunnel location and its ability to serve the greatest number of people in the area – Hatfield said too many questions surround the concept and that more study is needed.
“What if CMC becomes a four-year college?” Hatfield said. “That changes the whole ballgame.”
In other business, the transportation committee approved a request from Aspen Skiing Co. to provide more money as an incentive to lure the ESPN X Games back to Buttermilk Mountain over the next two years.
That portion of the meeting went quickly. The committee heard from John Rigney, Skico vice president of sales and events, who asked the committee to double its annual incentive to the X Games from $50,000 to $100,000. Skico would not directly receive the money, and it would be used solely for transportation purposes, he said.
The vote on the Skico request was unanimous. Skico, which is said to be competing with other resort destinations for the contract to host the popular games, previously obtained annual commitments from the Aspen City Council and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association that total $275,000, a $175,000 increase over the city’s previous investment.
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