Time to pave rest of the Rio Grande near Aspen?
September 2, 2011
ASPEN – With new survey results that indicate public support for paving the remaining unpaved stretch of the Rio Grande Trail below Aspen, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is planning a study next year of what is feasible on the challenging trail segment.
The future of the unpaved section, and the results of a 34-question survey conducted this summer, are slated for discussion Tuesday during a joint meeting of county commissioners and the Open Space and Trails board of trustees.
The survey, conducted mainly online for a 27-day period this summer, produced 438 responses, primarily from residents or property owners within the county. Respondents were surveyed on their trail-use habits, questioned on the county’s leash laws, asked to weigh in on additional amenities they’d like to see along county trails and quizzed on the paving issue, among other topics. (The 108 pages of results and comments from respondents are available at http://www.aspenpitkin.com. Click on County Departments and then Open Space and Trails to find the data.)
The Rio Grande Trail, which connects Aspen and Glenwood Springs on a former railroad corridor, is entirely paved, but for roughly five miles between Stein Park below Aspen, and McLain Flats Road above Woody Creek. The stretch through Woody Creek is newly paved, with a separate soft surface for equestrians, mountain bikers and joggers who prefer gravel over asphalt.
Paving the remaining stretch has long been divisive issue; some want the final piece paved to provide a continuous hard-surface bike trail running the length of the valley, while others are adamant that the hard-packed gravel stretch should be retained.
“What do people really mean when they say they want a paved surface?” mused Gary Tennenbaum, Open Space and Trails land steward.
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The open space program is budgeting $50,000 next year to perform a feasibility study and get further public input on the options. Among the challenges is how to pave the trail in a narrow stretch with steep slopes to either side, roughly opposite the Aspen sewage treatment plant. The trail is perched above one side of the Roaring Fork River; the plant is on the other. Putting both soft and hard trail surfaces in that area would be difficult as there isn’t much space.
“Do people really want a paved trail through that area?” Tennenbaum asked. “Let’s show people what’s really feasible. How we do it will be the next step.”
Cost estimates for the various options will be part of the study, he said.
The survey asked respondents what option they would prefer if the county created a hard surface. Seventy-four percent advocated extending pavement on the unpaved piece of the Rio Grande, while 14.8 percent said they would prefer widened shoulders along McLain Flats Road – an alternate route around the unpaved section that involves a steep hill and mixes bicyclists with vehicular traffic. Another 1.2 percent want both the widened road shoulders and pavement on the Rio Grande, while 6.5 percent of the respondents recommended leaving the trail as it is. The remainder, 3.6 percent, provided other responses.
Respondents who chose to write comments offered input ranging from “NO PAVING” and “DO NOT further ruin the mountain town experience” to “Just get it done. A couple of equestrians seem to be complaining and that is delaying the completion of a trail that would make it easy for downvalley workers to commute to Aspen by bicycle. It’s silly that there is only [a] short section of trail between Glenwood and Aspen that is unpaved.”
In response to another question, about 61 percent of respondents said they have experienced a conflict while on county open space or a county trail. Most were related to dogs or bicyclists, and a number of respondents predicted problems with speeding bicycles if the remaining gravel stretch is paved.
“We know if we pave it, there will be more conflicts,” Tennenbaum said.
On a related note, about 72 percent of the respondents said they’d like trail rangers to enforce the state law that requires bicyclists to use an audible signal when passing other trail users.
Among other insights from the survey: Additional restrooms was the amenity trail users most often mentioned that they would like to see, followed by wayfinding signs; nearly 60 percent said a dog accompanies them when they use open space and county trails; roughly 67 percent of respondents said they use the trails in the winter; and about 28 percent indicated that they use county trails to commute or for work purposes.