The degrees of ‘F’
September 28, 2005
Seconds. Maybe minutes.With traffic crawling in and out of Aspen for much of the summer, those modest gains in travel times are the best the city can hope to offer commuters anytime soon. It’s the something-is-better-than-nothing approach, given the community’s seeming inability to agree on any real solution to its congestion.”I would say you’re in the degrees of F,” traffic engineer Nick Senn told the City Council recently.In other words, Aspen’s clogged entrance gets a failing grade. Short-term solutions that may bring minor relief to motorists stuck in traffic are the difference between failing miserably and failing slightly less than miserably.
Traffic jams on Highway 82 at the western edge of town are nothing new. Nor is the debate over what to do about it. But 2005 summer traffic was somehow worse, the queues longer and the griping louder. An issue that has simmered on a back burner for the past few years is boiling up again. Renewed debate over the ever-divisive Entrance to Aspen – whether it’s S-curves versus straight shot, train versus buses or something else altogether – lurks on the lips of many.No one is quite sure why summer congestion was worse. Traffic counts were up in July and August, but not by huge amounts. Traffic inched along nonetheless, and commuters fumed.One motorist complained it took 45 minutes to travel from the intersection of Monarch and Main streets in downtown Aspen to the corner of Seventh and Hallam streets, 11 blocks away. Main and Seventh streets are part of Highway 82 in town.Buses couldn’t keep their schedules, leaving riders pacing at bus stops. Connections were impossible to predict.”This summer, I think most people would agree, was a little different,” said Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. “The feedback we got from bus drivers is, it was consistently taking longer to get out of town and there was no discernible reason.”The bus ride from Rubey Park, Aspen’s downtown transit hub, to Brush Creek Road – 6.2 miles away – is supposed to take 15 minutes. “I heard reports of 40, 50 minutes just to get to Cemetery Lane,” Blankenship said. The Cemetery Lane intersection with Highway 82 is a little more than a mile from Rubey Park.
After Aspen voters in 2002 nixed a long-debated proposal to realign Highway 82 at the entrance to town, the city focused on what could be done with the existing alignment. The longtime bottleneck includes stoplights that halt traffic flows, choke points where traffic merges from two lanes to one, and a pair of 90-degree turns dubbed the S-curves.Twice last summer, the council experimented with ideas designed to ease traffic flows on the highway. Side street and alley intersections in the S-curves were blocked, and left turns from Cemetery Lane onto Highway 82 were prohibited during the morning and afternoon rushes.According to the engineers, the overall gains in travel time were modest, though some commuters claim they experienced vastly quicker trips. Others blasted the demonstration project, including Cemetery Lane residents who were barred from turning left toward town and Smuggler Street residents who endured commuters cutting through their once-peaceful neighborhood.Nonetheless, the City Council has agreed to permanently block access points in the S-curves and, by next summer, to place a dedicated, outbound bus lane on Main Street. Parking on Main will be sacrificed for mass transit.Each afternoon, buses will be able to travel, unimpeded, for eight blocks on Main Street before they must merge with general traffic at Seventh Street to wind through the S-curves.Traffic engineers estimate the buses will pick up 3.6 minutes, but RFTA officials and some riders think the improvement will be even greater.Dorothea Farris, a Pitkin County commissioner and regular bus rider between Aspen and her Carbondale home, has spent as much as 30 minutes sitting in a bus on Main Street. A lane just for buses will shave off more than three to four minutes, she predicts.More important, it sends the message that mass transit and those who use it have priority on a crowded highway, Farris said.”It’s so minor, but it’s a step,” she said. “It is better to sit on the bus when it’s going past the cars that are sitting still.”
It’s an “adrenaline shot in the arm” for bus riders to pass autos stuck in traffic, agreed Kent Blackmer, RFTA director of operations.Ripping off the Band-AidWhatever improvements result from tweaks at the entrance, though, no one expects the minor adjustments to solve Aspen’s traffic woes. “That’s not the solution to transit in the upper valley,” Farris declared.”What we may be able to do is a Band-Aid at best. It’s not going to be a long-term solution,” said City Councilwoman Rachel Richards when Pitkin County commissioners pointed at the city earlier this month and said “do something.”The ultimate solution, however, threatens again to pit advocates of a four-lane highway (or two lanes plus transit, in the form of bus lanes or light rail) against locals who cringe at the thought of an urban thoroughfare crossing cherished open space – the essence of the so-called straight shot.The realigned highway, which would bypass the S-curves bottleneck, has been alternately supported and rejected by Aspen voters. But the commuters who travel from as far away as Rifle to work in Aspen never get to vote on what happens to the clogged arterial – an irony noted by one of the many citizens who called or e-mailed the city to weigh in on the summer S-curves experiments.”Maybe we should give those downvalley commuters the right to vote on the S-curve fiasco,” said one citizen. “Let [the] majority affected by the problem have a say.””All of your ‘demonstrations’ with the S-curves and traffic detours [are] a waste of time and money,” said another. “This has been studied to death. We need a four-lane straight access into Aspen… .”A new community discussion on the long-term solution to the entrance needs to occur – and that community includes downvalley residents commuting to and from town, according to Mayor Helen Klanderud.Richards has called for elected officials in Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County to spend some of the transit dollars they jointly control to come up with a long-term transportation solution.”Unless we’re willing to look at light rail or something to the Brush Creek Valley (the connection point to Snowmass Village), I think we’re just going to drown in this,” Richards said.
In the mid-1990s, state and federal officials approved a realignment of Highway 82 that included two traffic lanes plus light rail from the outskirts of town, with dedicated bus lanes as a possible alternative to rail. The highway was to cut across the Marolt Open Space, a scenic swath to the east of the Maroon Creek roundabout, cross Castle Creek on a new bridge and link directly to Main Street, bypassing the S-curves.Aspen voters endorsed the two-lane straight shot with light rail in 1996 but rejected that alignment in 2002. The financially strapped Colorado Department of Transportation never came up with the money to build it.Now, the plan is legally out of date; the shelf life of its approvals has expired. As a result, the new Highway 82 bridge currently under construction across Maroon Creek will carry just two lanes of traffic, though it will be wide enough for four. The Federal Highway Administration will require a re-evaluation of environmental impacts before four lanes of pavement see actual use on the bridge, according to Joe Elsen, CDOT program engineer in Glenwood Springs.
There has been talk of updating the now-stale Environmental Impact Statement that called for the two-lane straight shot with light rail connecting to Main Street. But that plan cost $5 million and consumed years of community process, and a new “supplemental EIS” would be required to resurrect the plan, Elsen said.”It’s anybody’s guess what that would cost,” he said. “It’s probably a million bucks, plus or minus.”CDOT doesn’t have money to spend on that process. And even if local governments stepped up with the cash, and the community could agree on a solution, a new supplemental EIS could expire before there’s any funding to build something.”All it would generate is a stack of paper … you still wouldn’t have any construction money,” Elsen said.Meanwhile, traffic counts coming in and out of Aspen are inching upward – averaging a new high of 24,442 vehicles per day through August 2005. At peak periods in July, more than 32,000 vehicles a day snaked through the S-curves.”That’s a lot,” Elsen said. “Typically, at 16,000 or 18,000 average daily traffic, we start looking at four lanes anywhere else, or at least we say two lanes isn’t getting it. What else can we do?”Something has to happen, contends Commissioner Farris, who pointedly asked the City Council what it intends to do.”When is it going to be resolved so it doesn’t take 45 minutes from the airport to town?” she pressed during a joint meeting of council members and commissioners earlier this month. “It’s becoming more and more of an issue.
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“A good portion of the people affected by this commuter traffic feel nothing is being done to address it.””I believe the leadership has to come from the city of Aspen,” added Commissioner Jack Hatfield. “You guys have the final vote … I really think the answer has got to evolve out of the city of Aspen.Council members concur on the need for the discussion, whether it’s reopening the EIS or starting from scratch.”There’s no question in my mind the City Council is committed to finding a long-term solution. The question is how we go about it,” Klanderud said.”I think we need a vision again for the valley – what is mass transit going to mean in the valley,” said Farris. “We need to talk about transit from Brush Creek into town. Maybe it’s a train, maybe it’s not.”I think we need to take that EIS off the shelf and I think we need to put some good minds together,” she said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org