Trolley giveaway gains steam
November 13, 2002
Aspen’s plan to give away its six vintage trolley cars doesn’t violate Colorado’s Constitution, according to City Attorney John Worcester.
With that interpretation of the law, city officials are finalizing arrangements to send two cars to Tucson, Ariz., and two to Issaquah, Wash., according to Assistant City Manager Ed Sadler. He was still awaiting word yesterday from Wanganui, New Zealand, which also wants two.
Whether the city could legally give away its assets was the subject of brief discussion at a City Council meeting on Monday, when members reconfirmed their desire to distribute the cars to places that will use them. Trolley supporter Kip Wheeler challenged the city’s ability to give away assets under Article XI, Section 2 of the state constitution.
After reviewing that section, Worcester said Tuesday he feels the city can proceed.
“I’m confident that what they’re proposing to do is perfectly legal,” he said.
The old provision in the constitution essentially prohibits the state and subdivisions of the state from benefiting private corporations or individuals, Worcester explained. The Colorado Supreme Court has since established the “public purpose rule,” which clarifies the constitutional provision and allows the giving away of state property if there is a public purpose, he said.
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The constitutional provision has come up when municipalities subsidize airline service and was the subject of a case before the state’s high court when the city of Denver offered concessions to United Airlines in the construction of Denver International Airport, according to Worcester. The court reaffirmed the public purpose rule at that time, he said.
In the case of the trolleys, the city has established a public purpose, Worcester said.
“I think the public purpose has been stated by council ? and that is they want to see the trolley cars put into use,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say courts would be reluctant to second guess the public purpose announced by a municipal city council.”
Aspen has tentative plans to give away five of its trolley cars and sell the sixth one, which has been cosmetically refurbished and is on display at Rubey Park. Issaquah has agreed to purchase that trolley for $2,000 and expects to remove it within a few weeks, Sadler said.
The other takers will be required to haul the cars away by May 15 of next year. Four are stored at the city’s Cozy Point Ranch, another is at the county dump.
The trolleys were the subject of a failed ballot measure last week that proposed putting the cars to use on an in-town trolley line. The Aspen Street Railway Co., which imported the cars from Portugal more than 20 years ago, proposed privately financing the trolley line and spent $22,000 restoring the car at Rubey Park. The group received a $20,000 grant for the work.
“I really question the whole legality of somebody giving $20,000 to the city of Aspen two months ago, and the city giving it away for $2,000 today,” said railway company member Jon Busch from Hawaii, where he just wrapped up his duties as technical director for the Hawaii International Film Festival.
Cripple Creek has also expressed interest in one of Aspen’s trolleys, but has worked out a deal to obtain one of Tucson’s cars after Tucson receives two Aspen cars. The Tucson car is better suited to Cripple Creek’s railroad track, according to Sadler.
While the City Council made it clear that they were willing to give away the cars if the takers put them to use on a trolley line, Busch questioned what the town in New Zealand will do with the Aspen trolleys.
Busch said he spoke to a representative in Wanganui last spring, when the town wanted just one car, and was told they wanted the Aspen trolley for parts. Now that Wanganui has expressed interest in two cars, Busch said he suspects one will be scavenged for parts.
“There are a lot of cities in this country that want them. I don’t know why we’re giving them to other countries,” he added.
Wheeler offered Monday to buy the cars for $2,500 apiece, but council said their top preference is sending them to places with an operating trolley line.
“Obviously, they want to get rid of them as quickly as possible,” Busch said. “I think they want there never to be another opportunity for them to come back again at some point in the future.
“It makes me not only suspicious of the City Council’s motives, but I think they are doing a terrible disservice to the citizens of Aspen,” he continued. “It just blows me away that they would be so iron-fisted about this.”