Tunnel key part of entrance | AspenTimes.com

Tunnel key part of entrance

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It started out as a suggestion, a way to run a bike path over a highway instead of under it.

Then it began to make sense as a way to offset the loss of open space the new roadway would consume, and to make a broad swath of open space look more like a broad swath of open space.

Then the 400-foot-long “cut-and-cover tunnel” on the Marolt-Thomas property at the Entrance to Aspen survived a rigorous evaluation process.

The three governments in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, the city of Aspen, Pitkin County, and the town of Snowmass Village, all endorsed the concept.

So did some local citizens, who told the Colorado Department of Transportation they liked the “land bridge,” as it was often called in meetings leading up to the completion of the Entrance to Aspen environmental impact statement (EIS).

Then the tunnel became an integral part of the 1998 Record of Decision, which was again supported by the three local governments, as well as the state and the federal government.

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“The Preferred Alternative will include multi-modal facilities at the Pitkin County Airport and Buttermilk Ski Area as part of the locally funded light rail transit component, a new Maroon Creek Bridge crossing north of the existing bridge, a roundabout at Maroon Creek Road, and a cut and cover tunnel of no less than 122 meters (400 feet) in length across the Marolt-Thomas property,” the ROD reads.

Today, the roundabout is in place. There are early-stage light rail platforms serving as bus stops at the airport and Buttermilk.

But the tunnel has become political weapon No. 1 in the hands of a group of Aspen citizens who are against using the Marolt-Thomas property for highway and transit improvements.

They have portrayed it as being akin to the Eisenhower Tunnel and labeled it as an urban solution out of scale and out of place in Aspen.

Other citizens, who are in favor of running two lanes of highway and a transit corridor between the roundabout and Seventh and Main streets in a “modified direct” alignment, have recently suggested, in response to the vilification of the “cut and cover tunnel,” that it is something that can be changed easily in an upcoming detailed design stage of the project.

But that’s not necessarily so, say those in a position to know.

“It is integral to the project,” said Joe Elsen, the resident program engineer for CDOT on Highway 82 projects. “It is a big part of the open space mitigation. And it stood up in court.”

The local Friends of Marolt sued to discredit the Entrance to Aspen EIS and to block the use of the Marolt-Thomas land for highway and transit improvements.

Last August, Chief Justice Lewis T. Babcock of the U.S. District Court issued a decision rejecting a series of claims made by the Friends of Marolt in a lawsuit the group filed in May 1999. Last week, the group filed a Notice of Appeal in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Randy Ready, Aspen’s assistant city manager who has been working on the EIS project for close to 10 years, agrees that the tunnel is a key part of the entrance.

“It is not simply a design feature,” he said. “It is not like the color of the bridge. It is clearly part of the preferred alternative, and it mitigates trail, open space and aesthetic issues.”

But both Ready and Elsen are scratching their heads when it comes to the sudden opposition to the tunnel.

“It did not surface during the process,” Ready said. “It was seen as a commendable part of the project. CDOT, against some odds, was hard-pressed to accept it because it is a tremendous effort at mitigation. And CDOT then pushed it as a critical part of moving this part of the project forward.”

“Where were they back in 1995 during the public hearings?” Elsen asked. “That is what is so aggravating about this.”

Now, in order to remove the tunnel from the entrance, it would require a new level of environmental analysis or at least an environmental assessment, Ready said. An environmental assessment is generally a less complicated process than an EIS.

“It is a component of the preferred alternative,” he said.