Upper valley transportation issues unlikely to improve in 2022

Drivers navigate the roundabout outside of Aspen on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
GOODBYE, 2021; HELLO, 2022

For the past week and into the first week of 2022, The Aspen Times is examining the issues and news events that defined the Aspen-area community in 2021 while also turning the lens to next year and what to watch for. Our 10-part series will show where the pandemic’s tentacles have and will continue to dip into our lives: skiing, tourism, development, mental health, labor shortages, business closings, housing shortages, a real estate boom, entertainment and on and on.

Anyone who thought last summer’s horrendous rush-hour gridlock in and out of Aspen was the worst yet had better recalibrate their frustration meter because next summer is almost guaranteed to be worse.

The impending Highway 82 repaving and roundabout reconstruction in the spring and through fall likely will magnify a traffic problem that has only grown worse in the pandemic era as the use of public buses dropped off significantly. At the same time, the more frequent occurrence of natural disasters has funneled the Interstate 70 hordes, led by GPS-worshipping semi-truck drivers who, like lemmings to the cliff, blindly drive through town and into impending Independence Pass disaster, where vehicles longer than 35 feet are prohibited.

Compounding the issue are local elected officials, who have mostly ignored the vexing gridlock problems at the Entrance to Aspen S-curves in recent years, as West End neighbors fumed at short-cut drivers’ daily invasion and downvalley commuters stewed in a cloud of Main Street carbon monoxide that likely offset countless local green initiatives.

Finally there’s the Aspen-Pitkin County airport.

A plan that took the Federal Aviation Administration three years to approve in July 2018, which included building a new terminal up to 140,000 square feet and moving the runway 80 feet west while widening it by 50 feet, is currently moot. That’s because a citizen-led advisory group shot it down in favor of leaving the runway where it is and rebuilding everything else around it. Pitkin County commissioners approved that plan in October 2020.

The decision essentially restarted the decades-long, extremely expensive process to rearrange the airfield and replace the terminal — currently a hodgepodge facility a local pol once likened to a “Mr. Potato Head” doll — at exactly square one.

So while we can always hope, the bottom line when it comes to transportation issues in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley is that they unlikely to improve in 2022.

Roundabout reconstruction

A biker crosses Maroon Creek Road as cars wait in traffic at the roundabout in Aspen on Thursday, July 29, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The biggest issue likely to face commuters, tourists and locals alike in 2022 is the multi-million-dollar repaving of Highway 82 between the Airport Business Center and the Maroon Creek Bridge, and, most especially, the major reconstruction of the roundabout west of town.

The $4 million to $5 million project is set to begin in April and last through the summer and into the fall, with most of the delays likely to occur in summer high season between June and October, according to Colorado Department of Transportation officials.

Highway 82 will not close during the project, however. CDOT has set up a so-called voluntary detour with the permission of Pitkin County commissioners where most Aspen-bound passenger cars and light trucks will be directed to use Smith Hill Way through Woody Creek to McLain Flats Road to Cemetery Lane and back to Highway 82.

Buses, large trucks and those who need to access Maroon Creek, Castle Creek and other roads off the portion of the highway being repaved will use Highway 82 and likely face delays.

CDOT crews plan to pave the road at night to cut down on traffic problems. Most of the delays are expected to come as a result of the roundabout, where crews will replace the pothole-prone asphalt with far-more-durable concrete. CDOT currently has to patch winter-caused potholes at the roundabout every two or three years, while the concrete is expected to last 20-to-30 years.

The roundabout reconstruction alone is expected to cost about $2.6 million, which will be paid for with nearly $1 million from the city of Aspen and another $670,000 from Pitkin County, the Elected Officials Transportation Committee and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. CDOT will pay for the rest.

Independence Pass

After massive mudslides in late July caused by heavy rains in the Grizzly Creek burn scar closed Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, traffic volume in the Roaring Fork Valley exploded.

Much of the interstate traffic consulted Google maps and headed up and over Independence Pass, a two-lane road made to handle about 3,000 cars a day that ended up with three times that on some days. Cars broke down, drivers froze at the narrow sections and over-length semi-trucks, recreational vehicles and trucks with trailers blocked the road or became stuck.

The Glenwood Canyon closures continued on and off during the summer, depending on rain storms, and even when CDOT, Colorado State Patrol and local law enforcement put measures into place to try and control the Independence Pass onslaught, traffic still sometimes backed up through Aspen and down valley.

A Colorado Department of Transportation employee and Pitkin County Sheriff's deputy talk with truck drivers on Friday morning at the Independence Pass gate east of Aspen. Semitrucks and vehicles longer than 35 feet are not allowed on Highway 82 over the Pass. These three truckers had to turn around and were not fined. (David Krause / The Aspen Times)

The main problem is that vehicles longer than 35 feet are not allowed on the narrow road up and over 12,095 foot Independence Pass. And despite numerous road signs warning about the requirement from Glenwood Springs all the way to the winter closure gate east of Aspen, as well as an equal amount on the Twin Lakes side, semi truck drivers, recreational vehicle drivers and vacationers towing toys constantly ignored the law and attempted the drive.

The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office took to posting deputies at the winter closure gate when the interstate closed to try and mitigate the problem. CDOT also installed temporary traffic lights at the two Narrows sections on the Aspen side of the Pass, which appeared to alleviate some of the issues.

Entrance to Aspen

A thornier transportation issue in the Aspen area does not exist.

This is all about the infamous, two-lane S-Curves bottleneck at the west end of town that stops traffic dead twice a day during most months of the year. A plan to fix the problem has been on the books for 23 years, but has never been implemented.

That’s because it’s complicated, requires navigating treacherous local political minefields and will take time, hard work and community consensus to solve. It also drives thousands of residents, bus riders, commuters, local workers and tourists to the brink of patience and beyond on a daily basis.

A car utilizes Power Plant Rd. to avoid afternoon traffic on Hwy 82 leaving Aspen on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen Times reporter Carolyn Sackariason outlined the complicated history behind the Entrance to Aspen and the ways it might be solved in a recent article.

That story, however, provides the one positive note on transportation issues Aspen has seen in some time: Elected leaders are again talking about the Entrance to Aspen rather than ignoring it.

The last time there was any momentum behind solving the issue was in early 2017, when local elected leaders from Aspen, Pitkin County and the Town of Snowmass Village on the Elected Officials Transportation Committee heard results of a nearly $500,000 study that looked at the use of buses versus light rail across the Marolt Open Space for the Entrance.

Then-Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron, however, shot down any further discussion of the issue after a little more than an hour, declaring Marolt off-limits.

“There’s no political will to prioritize development of the Marolt Open Space,” he said in June 2017. “It’s a nonstarter with the Aspen City Council.”

And just like that, hardly any elected official spoke of the Entrance to Aspen publicly again until the Aspen City Council — prodded by Councilwoman Rachel Richards — took it up in September.

Richards, in fact, first brought up the issue at another EOTC meeting in July.

“All the other measures we’re talking about today are needed , but they are all incremental and small until we deal with the elephant in the room and deal with the Entrance,” she said at the time. “It’s not going away and it bothers our residents on a daily basis, whether they’re trying to get into town or get out of town.

“I realize it’s a complicated issue, but I do think, for my time at the table, the EOTC should be looking at this again and bringing it back forward.

The EOTC hired an administrator not long after the 2017 meeting to facilitate transportation issues in the upper valley, though nothing about the Entrance to Aspen has appeared on EOTC agendas since he was brought on board.

Residents of Aspen’s West End formed a group this summer to fight the ever-growing numbers of construction trucks and trailers and other commuters who cut through the neighborhood during afternoon rush hour to avoid sitting in gridlocked Main Street traffic.

Aspen-Pitkin County Airport

The "Welcome Bear" at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is masked up to remind visitors of the mask mandate in Pitkin County.
David Krause / The Aspen Times

Since Pitkin County commissioners voted 4-1 in October 2020 to approve a plan different from the one that took the FAA three years to improve, not much has happened.

Part of that is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though county officials were not sure how the FAA would react to the rejection of the previous plan, which was expensive and largely paid for by the FAA.

A negative reaction from the FAA might prompt commissioners to reconsider their support of the plan approved by the community advisory committee.

All of that essentially means that a new Aspen airport remains far off in the future.