The transit template: a look down the rocky road
Aspen Times Staff Writer
No matter the outcome of tomorrow’s election on the Entrance to Aspen, one thing is already set in concrete: the two upvalley lanes of Highway 82 that end at the Buttermilk Ski Area.
At that location, the Colorado Department of Transportation has decided that Highway 82 will cease being a four-lane highway and turn into a two-lane road.
In that regard, the city of Aspen and Pitkin County have won their 30-year battle against the state building a four-lane all the way into town.
And despite recent warnings about CDOT’s lurking desire to run a four-lane right onto Aspen’s Main Street, the state is content, at least officially, with the four-lane ending at Buttermilk.
As a result, a vehicular bottleneck has been built into the local highway system. And unlike other bottlenecks on Highway 82 that are created when two lanes merge into one, this one is not going away anytime soon for private vehicles, although it could for mass transit.
When CDOT agreed to stop the four-lane at Buttermilk, it said that a mass-transit corridor would be necessary to handle all the commuters coming into Aspen.
And in its 1998 Record of Decision, the state wrote a key sentence: “The transit component includes a light rail transit system that, if local support and/or funding are not available, will be developed initially as exclusive bus lanes.”
That sentence gives the citizens of Aspen two transit options: either two lanes and light rail, or two lanes and two more lanes just for buses.
It also gives Aspen the opportunity to develop what transit planners call a “dedicated mass transit right of way,” which allows either a train or buses to run without the interference of cars or stoplights. In the world of community transit planning, a dedicated right of way is an incredibly valuable, and difficult, thing to obtain.
In 1996, Aspen voters said yes to two lanes and light rail. Since then, they’ve rejected one light-rail funding question and two bus-lane questions.
But if Aspen wants to solve its current transit dilemma ? getting transit out of the bottleneck the community has itself created to ward off a four-lane ? it will need to make a choice.
“The city of Aspen still has in its future questions about dedicated bus lanes or light rail,” said Tom McCabe, a member of the Aspen City Council.
And according to Aspen’s transit provider, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, it needs to make that choice if it wants to meet stated community goals, such as keeping traffic at 1994 levels.
“Steps must be taken to increase the attractiveness and competitiveness of transit when compared to auto travel,” a RFTA position paper said recently.
But since the formation of a regional transit authority in 2000, there has not been a focused, coordinated effort sponsored by local elected officials to develop support for a specific transit solution between Buttermilk and Aspen.
“My sense is that people just wanted to rest the issue for a while,” said Stan Clauson, the former city planner for Aspen who now runs his own planning firm, Stan Clauson and Associates. “The bridge construction at the Entrance to Aspen is going to take a long time, so we will have plenty of time to debate transit technologies.”
During the mid-1990s, meeting after meeting was held with citizens, elected officials and a bevy of consultants working together to forge a vision that everyone could support. The 1996 vote on the entrance plan and the 1998 ROD was the product of that process. And the agreed-upon solution was two lanes and light rail.
But in the past year, while there has been work done on some on the larger Entrance to Aspen issues, such as funding, little work has been done to help voters choose a transit option, especially when compared to the intensive, multiyear effort that led to the support of the 1998 two-lanes-and-rail compromise.
Aspen Assistant City Manager Randy Ready chalks that up to a shift in the political climate.
“At some point about 1998, the shift of focus and vision happened,” Ready said. “The priority was no longer the Entrance to Aspen, it was instead a concentrated effort on valleywide rail. Rail to the airport was seen as not that feasible. And all efforts were shifted to getting federal funding for valleywide rail. At that point, it became a very different scale and scope.”
And Ready acknowledges that there has been a transit void created by the shift in focus and that if a community is not constantly moving forward on transit, then it is moving backward.
“The point is well taken,” he said. “But players change, conditions change. The entrance was on the tip of everybody’s tongue from 1995 to 1998, but it has been four years now and the gap grows bigger every day.”
And that has led many citizens to voice support for the status quo of the S-curves until the transit picture clears up.
Another key player in the 1998 consensus said the current lack of community workshops on transit designed to build consensus is part of a natural ebb and flow.
“Communities have a way of going in waves,” said Amy Margerum, the former Aspen city manager who coordinated much of the transit discussions in the mid-1990s and is now the executive vice president at The Aspen Institute. “And sometimes you need time when elected officials aren’t being so much of an advocate.”
So what’s a transit rider to do while the RFTA buses sit in mixed traffic between Buttermilk and Main Street? Can they do more than admire the problem and the divided nature of the Aspen electorate?
“The transit riders aren’t the voters in Aspen,” said McCabe. “They live outside of the jurisdiction. If they were voting, this wouldn’t be an issue. This is being voted on by the residents of Aspen and most of them don’t have to deal with the Entrance to Aspen.”
Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland thinks that transit riders could speak for themselves.
“I think people need to rally and not just wait for someone to come and do the work for them,” Ireland said. “The way to do it is that you get involved as citizens. If people get involved and start pushing, it will happen.”
RFTA would be a logical organization to speak for transit riders, but the appointed RFTA board is not of one mind about which transit option Aspen should choose.
Some RFTA board members, such as Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud, are against using the Thomas-Marolt corridor for transit. Others, like Susan Darrow of Carbondale, can barely conceal their disdain for Aspen and are reluctant to wade into its contentious politics.
And the organization is struggling to make its budget balance and doesn’t have funds to put toward community outreach and information.
Despite the fact that no other single organization has as much as stake in developing a separate transit right of way from Buttermilk to Aspen, RFTA has not had the bandwidth, the focus, or the budget to do so in the past two years.
“I can tell you right now, RFTA is not going to take on that role until the CIS is finished,” said Jackie Whitsitt, a member of the Basalt Board of Trustees and a representative on the RFTA board.
The Corridor Investment Study is something of a holy grail for RFTA, in that the environmental impact statement is supposed to disclose the pros and cons of the transit options in the valley, including light rail and “bus-rapid-transit,” which has been described as a bus system on steroids.
A draft of the CIS is expected to be complete in February. And while the document may shed some light on how a valleywide system will work, it is predicated upon one of the two transit options from Buttermilk to Aspen actually being implemented.
Whitsitt concedes that public education is something that RFTA should be doing, but currently doesn’t have the budget to fund a staff person to focus on community involvement.
“This is definitely an issue that if you don’t get the big picture out there constantly and over and over it is very difficult to develop support for a solution,” Whitsitt said. “But you cannot do that with an operations staff. You have to have committed resources for public relations and education. And we need a full-time staff person to do that.”
T. Michael Manchester, the mayor of Snowmass Village and chairman of the RFTA board, says that time has not yet come for someone to lead Aspenites toward a firm consensus on transit.
“The question of the day is about alignment,” Manchester said.
And Manchester, one of the few elected officials still willing to stand up and support light rail at the entrance, thinks building two lanes across the new alignment is the correct first step.
“I think we will build the two-lane parkway and we will run buses in mixed traffic and the point at which that does not run efficiently, we will be very close to the point at which we understand rail to be a credible alternative,” Manchester said. “I am not as much a naysayer about rail as most.”
And he holds out hope that RFTA’s CIS will help voters make a better choice.
“The CIS begins to address a lot of these issues. It will give us a better understanding of how these pieces interrelate and it will put them into a valleywide context. It projects ridership patterns and traffic patterns and it is a statistical analysis about what our future looks like.”
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.