Trolleys inch closer to vote

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen’s historic trolley cars inched closer to a public vote on Monday.

After a heated debate that left the City Council split, Councilman Tony Hershey relented and agreed to let city staffers draft a ballot question for the Nov. 5 election.

His capitulation put a three-member majority in favor of drafting the question, with Councilman Tim Semrau absent. Hershey and Mayor Helen Klanderud cautioned, though, that their willingness to formulate a question did not guarantee they’d vote to put it on the ballot.

That decision must come later this summer; the deadline to get a question on the November ballot is Sept. 9.

The ballot measure, said City Manager Steve Barwick, will ask voters if Aspen should grant the rights of way necessary for a trolley line and operate the system. The wording of the question will give local trolley advocates the responsibility for obtaining an engineering analysis, raising the necessary capital and building the system. Each step must be done in a yet-to-be-determined time frame. If the group fails to meet any of its deadlines, the project dies, Barwick explained.

“It places the responsibility solely on the trolley company,” he said.

“Actual construction, I guess we’re probably talking about maybe four or five years out,” said Bill Dinsmoor, a member of the Aspen Street Railway Co., which has been pushing for the trolley vote.

Hershey spoke forcefully against spending staff time on a ballot question, calling it a disservice to ask voters about a project that has little chance of becoming a reality.

“I think this is a fantasy. It’s not going to happen,” he said. “If it passes, people are going to say, `OK, where’s my trolley,’ and I don’t think you’re going to raise the money.

“The bottom line is, I don’t see the implementation,” Hershey said. “I don’t want my staff spending public money when I don’t believe, in my heart of hearts, it’s going to happen.”

It appeared the council would end its discussion split 2-2 and await Semrau’s return today to decide the matter, but during a council break, Hershey said he had changed his mind and would at least let the ballot measure be drafted.

Councilman Tom McCabe continued his opposition to the trolley plan, voicing fears that the cost of operating the system would be excessive.

“I’m not convinced that a community of this size can afford it,” he said. “I really don’t see how we can operate this at a cost that doesn’t make us look like a bunch of idiots.”

Councilman Terry Paulson supported moving forward with a ballot measure, and Klanderud grudgingly added her support, but asked for a question that would settle the matter once and for all.

“Not advisory – it’s going to have to be a definitive question,” she said. “I think there needs to be a community debate on this. If we vote on it, if it doesn’t pass, we give them away.”

The council has been poised to give away the six deteriorating cars several times over the past year. The railway group, which envisions using the cars to replace the Galena Street Shuttle with a unique form of in-town transit, has repeatedly pleaded with the council to put the fate of the cars to a public vote.

The group brought the vintage cars to Aspen from Lisbon, Portugal, more than 20 years ago. The trolleys have been decaying in outdoor storage pretty much ever since.