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Tired of traffic? Get used to it

Brent Gardner-Smith

Tired of sitting in traffic delayed by highway construction between the airport and Buttermilk ski area?

Well, get used to it.

Getting into Aspen is not likely to get much easier for years, although the Pitkin County Commissioners passed a resolution Wednesday urging the state to form a partnership with local governments to help speed things along.

Even when the four-laning of Highway 82 is complete up to Buttermilk, there are still a variety of obstacles that will prevent the smooth flow of cars and buses into and out of Aspen.

The current highway widening project, due to be complete in November 2001, represents the upper limits of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Basalt-to-Buttermilk project. But just beyond the four lanes that will reach Buttermilk is the two-lane Maroon Creek Bridge.

“The bridge is going to be the new bottleneck,” said Ralph Trapani, CDOT’s project manager for the Highway 82 widening project.

“I can’t even guess [when the bridge will be replaced],” said Trapani. “We needed that bridge five years ago but I don’t have any money.”

The current plans for the highway call for one unrestricted lane of traffic and one HOV lane to be in place from Basalt to Buttermilk.

Proposals do call for the bridge to be replaced, but when complete only two lanes will carry cars and two others will be dedicated to buses. The thinking behind the design is that it will give advantages to a mass transit system in and out of Aspen.

But while CDOT has been willing to invest $240 million in the Basalt-to-Buttermilk section of Highway 82, including $100 million for the three miles in Snowmass Canyon, it currently has no funds set aside for the roughly $60 million it is going to take to finish the job between Buttermilk and the Hickory House.

And as long as there are bottlenecks between Buttermilk and Aspen, the mass transit advantages will be less discernible.

The elements of that final stretch of highway include a new four-lane Maroon Creek bridge, road improvements between the bridge and the roundabout, a new road across the Marolt property between the roundabout and Main Street, a “cut and cover tunnel,” and a new four-lane bridge over the deep canyon carved out by Castle Creek.

The funds for a Maroon Creek bridge are perhaps the most vague right now, as neither CDOT, Pitkin County nor the city of Aspen can or will commit to paying for the project.

For its part, the city has $5 million for road improvements between the bridge and the roundabout as part of the Truscott housing expansion. The highway in front of Truscott will be integrated with the approach to the roundabout and both a traffic signal and a pedestrian underpass are planned. But that still leaves the Cemetery Lane traffic light and the infamous S-curves as obstacles to smooth-flowing traffic.

As an alternative, Aspen voters have said yes to the Marolt open space parcel being used for two lanes of traffic and a train. CDOT has gained environmental clearance for that scenario, or for two lanes of traffic and two exclusive bus lanes.

Either way, the road platform, the new tunnel and the new bridge will be the same scale whether the rail or bus option is chosen.

But if buses are the ultimate choice, as they currently are seen to be by the valley’s elected officials, then Aspen voters have to approve the four lanes of pavement across Marolt. That could happen in May during the Aspen city elections.

But then there’s the question of the money.

Yesterday, the county commissioners passed a resolution requesting funding from CDOT for the improvements. The document also calls for a partnership with local entities, where the county and Aspen would put up about $10 million that CDOT could pay back later, identical to the scheme used to fund the roundabout.

In any case, the commissioners suggested the entire valley needs to tell the head of CDOT that finishing the entrance is important.

“Tom Norton needs to know that the entrance to Aspen has regional support,” said commissioner Dorothea Farris, “and it is not just Aspen asking for it.”

Pitkin County Manager Suzanne Konchan, whose last day as county manager is Friday, was not entirely pessimistic about the chances for the entrance to Aspen to be resolved in the near term.

“The City Council and the BOCC are as enthusiastic as I’ve ever seen them in the past 10 years about completing this project,” she said. “The conversation has turned to how can we complete the entrance to Aspen as soon as possible.”


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