Transit may fill fall ballot
Aspen voters may be faced with more than one ballot question about mass transit when they go to the polls in November.
And Aspen’s top elected official said this week that she is worried about increased voter confusion, as well as concern among state bureaucrats, due to local bickering about what would be the best mass-transit system for the region.
Aspen’s two newest City Council members, Tom McCabe and Tony Hershey, are leading an initiative petition drive to ask voters if they want to authorize $20 million as the city’s share of the cost of a light-rail system between the Pitkin County Airport and the center of town. A companion question – raising an additional $37 million – is being pursued for a countywide vote on the same issue.
If the voters decide against the light-rail system, according to the wording of the ballot question, the government must then move ahead with construction of “phased exclusive bus lanes” along the same realigned right of way.
Mayor Rachel Richards said Thursday she believes it would be better to ask voters this year for approval to build a “dedicated busway” alongside the highway, and ask voters to choose between buses and rail in an election next year.
The $57 million light-rail system is to be built along the planned right of way of a realigned Highway 82 over the city-owned Marolt Ranch parklands, connecting directly to Main Street over a new bridge across Castle Creek.
The light-rail system, to be funded by a Pitkin County sales tax dedicated to transportation, is being viewed by area officials as a “local match” for federal and state funds needed to build a commuter rail line from Glenwood Springs to the Pitkin County Airport.
Area officials who have supported the valleywide commuter rail system have predicted that, if the upvalley light-rail line is not built, there will be no justification for building the downvalley system either.
Not enough information
Mayor Richards believes the voters do not have enough information to make a choice between the rail system and the bus lanes, because there has been no analysis of the potential costs of what has been known as a “dedicated busway” system into town.
And even if the needed information about the cost of building the busway into town can be disseminated by election day, said Richards, there has been no voter approval of bus lanes to allow the system to be built.
Neither McCabe nor Hershey could be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon.
A city election in 1996 authorized the use of the Marolt Ranch lands for a combination of two lanes of traffic and a light-rail system, as laid out in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s plans for the long-debated “Entrance To Aspen.” No mention was made in the ballot language about the use of buses as a mass-transit alternative.
Richards said that, if organizers forge ahead on the initiative question, she will work to get a bus-funding question on the same ballot “to give voters a choice between apples and apples.” Busway not so simple Richards said that she does not believe the concept of a busway means simply putting a few more Roaring Fork Transit Agency buses on a four-lane highway, with painted lines on the pavement to keep the buses separate from the cars.
“Where does that get us?” she asked rhetorically. “Doesn’t that just get us the unrestricted four-lane?”
She said voters rejected a busway once, in a 1994 election on the MET transit proposal. She said it was her understanding at the time that many voters were concerned that the bus lanes could easily be converted to normal traffic lanes.
She said that, in order to give citizens the most benefit of a busway, it is necessary “to make it a real system,” with new, alternative-fuel buses that don’t pollute the air; new bus stations that are more substantial than the present bus stops; and a new maintenance facility with alternative-fuel pumping equipment and greater capacity than the present bus barn.
That, she said, will cost millions of dollars from the county’s transportation tax, and needs to be fully explained to the voters.
“This busway [mentioned in the initiative question], as just a land-use proposal, as if it’s free, is simply not true,” she declared, calling the reference in the initiative “a little bit of a phantom.”
Richards said she continues to feel it is “premature” to ask voters about paying for the light-rail system, because of a lack of information.
In response to accusations that she is violating a pledge she made in last spring’s municipal election to put a rail-funding question to voters this year, she recalled her advertisements indicating she was “committed to bringing transportation choices to the voters,” and that an election should be held “once all the pieces come together.” The bigger picture Richards said she is worried that CDOT, which is supposed to provide funding for the highway-expansion segment of the Entrance to Aspen, may be “scared off” by the constant bickering among rail supporters and detractors. And if the highway project, including the bridge, is held up, neither rail nor a busway can be built.
The agency is already jittery about Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, thanks to decades of indecision about everything from expanding Highway 82 to four lanes to the debate about the train, she said.
If voters reject the light-rail system, or send mixed messages in a split vote between the city and county electorate, Richards said, “They [the state] might just say, `Oh, no, we’re not getting in the middle of this again,’ ” and back off from any further work on the entrance to town.
An Aug. 3 meeting has been called the give council members a chance to talk about their differences and perhaps come up with a ballot question that they all can live with.
Richards, however, said she is not sure what will come of that meeting.
She accused McCabe and Hershey, who are in alliance with avowed rail opponent Jeffrey Evans, of being “disingenuous” in posing a question that authorizes funding for light rail, because she believes they are also making plans to fight for the defeat of their own ballot question between now and election day.
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