‘The community has to answer the transit question’
May 20, 2002
A light rail system to the Pitkin County airport could be a solution to the current debate over the Entrance to Aspen.
That may illicit groans from a number of veterans of the 30-year fight over traffic, transit and Aspen’s character. But at the very least, a light rail system connecting to a regional bus system at Buttermilk and/or the airport is now a viable option that voters may soon be considering.
“It seems like a reasonable approach, and I am willing to look at it,” said Aspen City Councilman Tony Hershey, who once dismissed light rail as a mass transit option for Aspen. “Hey, if the people want it, and the people want to pay for it, let’s do it.”
Talk with many elected officials in the Roaring Fork Valley and they will tell that if light rail in the valley is not dead, then it is at least sleeping.
Yet, the once abandoned idea of an upper-valley light rail segment is now viewed as a credible step in the bus-to-rail scenario to which the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is committed.
“The long-term policy direction that we were given by the RFTA board says that rail is the long-range planning goal of RFTA,” said Roger Millar, a planner with the Carbondale planning firm Otak, which is writing a corridor investment study for RFTA. “But a bus rapid transit system is the likely short-term goal.”
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And, Millar said, the CIS due out this summer assumes that a mass-transit corridor into Aspen, either for light rail or for buses, will soon be in place.
“Our assumption is that one of the two alternatives gets built,” said Millar. “What we’re studying assumes that the upper-valley governments do something.”
So far in the Entrance to Aspen saga, Aspen voters have said yes to a two-lane parkway with light rail across Marolt and have said no to four lanes with two lanes set aside exclusively for buses.
Hershey believes if Aspen wants a transit solution, the voters will need to choose between light rail and buses across Marolt. And that if they don’t, he feels they will have passed up a key opportunity to create a dedicated transit corridor into Aspen.
“You close the door to mass transit if you don’t finish the entrance,” Hershey said.
As part of its bus rapid-transit system, RFTA would continue to develop bus stations and a platform that can easily be used for light rail in the future, such as the new transit stop at Buttermilk.
And, Millar said, it makes sense to phase valley light rail in both over time and geographically. Given that, a logical first step would be the leg from Aspen to Buttermilk and the airport.
Regional buses would come upvalley, and passengers heading into Aspen would transfer at Buttermilk to light rail cars.
The section from Aspen to the airport has environmental clearance, and there is a dedicated stream of transit funding already approved by the voters of Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County. What’s left is a specific local bonding question.
And, if Aspen voters feel light rail makes sense across Marolt, and RFTA feels it makes sense as part of a regional system, it could make sense to go ahead and agree to build a segment of it sooner rather than later.
“I am willing to look at it,” Hershey said. “I’ve compromised so much, and I’m willing to compromise more. Especially if it is the only way I get the transit improvements I want.”
Millar said it would cost $70 million to build a light rail system to the airport, not counting the $60 million worth of Entrance to Aspen bridges and platforms that CDOT already plans to finance and build.
Operationally, studies show a light rail system with today’s level of ridership would cost about 60 cents a rider to run, compared to about 45 cents a rider for a bus system.
But, as the local and visitor population increases, as it is projected to do by 2 to 4 percent annually, both systems are expected to cost under 30 cents per rider to operate.
There are community character tradeoffs between light rail and buses that Aspen may find itself debating anew, should it reconsider light rail.
Light rail requires overhead wires on Main Street, but it is seen by some as having less of a visual impact than four lanes of pavement on the Marolt property.
Light rail also requires fewer mass-transit cars than a bigger bus system. As implausible as it sounds, 900 RFTA buses cruised up and down Main Street on a typical day in March. Fewer rail cars would be needed to do the same job.
Politically, the option of running light rail to Buttermilk and the airport seemed to die in the mid-1990s, when upvalley political leaders decided it made more sense to pursue a valleywide rail option.
But that decision did open the way for a regional transit dialogue, which then led to the formation of the new regional RFTA system. RFTA is funded by sales taxes from throughout the valley.
While the Entrance to Aspen has not been on the board’s front burner, it is baked into all of its long-range planning discussions. And the board has pitched the project to both state and federal lawmakers as a key component of a regional system.
The current configuration of the Entrance to Aspen is also seen, at least on the operational side, as a major bottleneck in the regional system.
“Right now, between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, it is the biggest single delay in peak times that we face,” said Paul Hilts, RFTA operations manager. “As an example, during the high winter-summer season, buses will be as much as 15 minutes behind schedule by the time they get to Brush Creek and Highway 82.”
If that’s the case, why hasn’t the RFTA board been actively pushing for the entrance question to be resolved?
“Because the RFTA board is made up of so many jurisdictions right now, everyone is trying to respect everyone else’s turf,” said Hilts. “And so they are willing to leave it up to Aspen.”
T. Michael Manchester, the mayor of Snowmass Village and the chairman of the RFTA board, conceded that solving the entrance dilemma has not been at the top of the board’s list.
“It would improve the quality of service, but it hasn’t been a priority for us to try and make that happen,” Manchester said.
Over the past year or so, there has been little pressure on Aspen to answer the question of whether it wants bus or rail to come into town.
But that may be changing.
CDOT is making progress toward building its part of the 1996 entrance agreement. Ralph Trapani, senior engineer on the Highway 82 project, said recently the state is willing to move ahead with the bridges and the platform and let the community decide later whether it wants buses or light rail into town.
“What CDOT is talking about doing is their part of the bargain,” said Millar. “We signed up for a two-lane parkway and dedicated transit platform. All they are talking about is meeting their obligation and getting out of the job.”
But Randy Ready, Aspen assistant city manager, says the community loses if CDOT builds the entrance before the public has decided on the bus or rail question.
“If CDOT is ready to proceed, and this community has not decided what kind of transit system it wants, it will be shunting aside some economies of scale,” said Ready. “It would be helpful if we had our minds made up.”
What do the voters in Aspen want?
Well, it’s something of a cottage industry to try to derive meaning and intent from past votes on the Entrance to Aspen.
Many seem to agree that in 1996, voters in Aspen did approve a two-lane parkway and a light rail system to run across the Marolt open space and connect with Main Street.
Since then, voters have taken three more trips to the polls without necessarily giving out a message that people on all sides of the issue can agree on.
In 1998, Pitkin County citizens voted to stop the county from spending money on any more rail studies.
Yet today, RFTA is completing its CIS, which is, in part, a valleywide rail study.
In 1999, voters said no to issuing bonds for conceptual rail and bus systems, which were presented to voters more in the form of a costly bill for systems than as detailed plans.
In fact, rail opponents put the rail funding question on the ballot with the hope that it would fail and thus die a political death, which it did.
Then, in 2001, voters said no to building a four-lane road across Marolt with two lanes set aside for buses only.
And now, CDOT is preparing to build its two-lanes-with-transit-to-come-later project.
But paving Marolt without a definitive transit solution leaves many people feeling cold. And it certainly doesn’t satisfy the Friends of Marolt, who don’t want to see either two or four lanes of pavement across Marolt.
So is a light rail system across Marolt to Buttermilk and the airport a good answer? And would the RFTA board support a decision by Aspen and Pitkin County to build such a system, even though it requires a transfer for the trip into and out of Aspen?
“Absolutely,” said Hershey, who is an alternate on the RFTA board behind Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud. “It would work perfectly into their plans.”
Is it too early to ask such a question?
CDOT is certainly pressing the issue. And Hershey said he would not be surprised to see some sort of question about the Marolt property as soon as this November.
Additionally, a statewide vote on transit funding is now expected to be held in November 2003. If that passes and the state has the money and the momentum to complete the Entrance to Aspen, local voters may find themselves faced with a key choice on the entrance.
“The community has to answer the transit question,” said Millar.