Vision process hammers out new Aspen airport’s size, growth rate
Residents involved in planning Aspen’s new airport have reached significant conclusions in the past month about how big the facility will be and how many passengers it will accommodate in the future.
Those baseline conclusions will be used as reference points for the five committees looking at the various aspects of the airport project, said John Bennett, a former Aspen mayor who chairs the lead committee in Pitkin County’s airport visioning process.
“We don’t want a palatial airport,” Bennett said last week. “We don’t want something that looks like Las Vegas. It should be just big enough.”
According to a consensus among members of the main airport Vision Committee and the four subcommittees, the size of Aspen’s new airport will be between 75,000 and 90,000 square feet, said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock. It will have between four and eight gates and will be able to accommodate a 0.8% growth per year in the number of commercial passengers coming through the facility, he said.
“We will be anticipating a smaller footprint (than originally estimated) and limited gates to accommodate the growth we think we’re going to get,” Peacock said.
In addition, the citizen members of the committees voted to come up with measures that reduce airport-generated greenhouse gas emissions and noise by as much as 30%, he said.
Overall, the baseline means the number of commercial passengers handled by Aspen’s new airport will grow from about 284,000 in 2018 to about 305,000 by 2028, Peacock said.
That was the so-called “limited growth” option chosen by most members of the airport vision process committees, which was decided at a meeting in late July. Bennett said that meeting may have been the linchpin in the airport vision process.
“When it’s all finished, we may look back on that meeting and say, ‘That was the turning point in the entire process,’” Bennett said. “That’s a big deal.”
In order to get to that point, committee members spent roughly six months working through mutual suspicions, divisions and contentions to come up with a list of nine community values they wanted the new airport to reflect, Bennett and Peacock said.
That list eventually included safety at the top, followed by adaptability to future needs, environmental responsibility, reflection of community culture and values, economic vitality, warm and welcoming, design excellence, efficiency and preserving the area’s high quality of life.
The committee members, with the help of county staff, then turned the list of abstract values into a quantifiable set of goals and guidelines in the form of a chart that showed five options for the airport’s future, Bennett and Peacock said.
Those options included reducing the number of commercial passengers by about 40%, reducing passenger numbers to 2008 levels of about 213,000 a year, limiting commercial passenger growth to 0.8% per year, encouraging 3% growth per year and allowing more than 3% growth per year.
The members of each of the four sub-committees were then provided color-coded dots and asked to put them in the area depicting the type of growth they supported on the chart showing the five options, Peacock said. Most people supported the limited 0.8% growth option, which translated into the 75,000 to 90,000 square footage and between four and eight gates, according to the chart.
“That gave us, for the first time, a clear mandate from the 120-plus citizens (on the committees) on a specific set of directions for the airport,” Bennett said. “It’s as close to a consensus as this community is likely to get.”
The members of the Vision Committee took part in a similar dot-placing exercise on a chart with the same options with roughly the same result as the subcommittee members, according to that chart.
Without that baseline community consensus, the process would spiral down “into a bunch of people in a room arguing about everything,” Bennett said.
Now, when committees get bogged down on a particular issue, they can refer back to the values hammered out over the first six months of the process and make decisions, he said.
Members of the four subcommittees can get on with their areas of expertise, Peacock said.
The Technical Committee, for example, will focus on the types of commercial aircraft that best fit with that set of values. The Experience Committee will look at the terminal.
The Focus Committee will digest numerous mobility studies and decide how to integrate the airport into the valley’s transportation system. The Character Committee will focus on how the airport fits with other community goals outlined in various area master plans.
Meg Haynes, co-chair of the Vision Committee, praised the vision process as a “ground-up” and “grassroots” effort that is being steered by community members and not consultants.
“We’re carefully trying to listen to other voices,” she said. “We’re really striving toward a consensus everyone can support (and) everyone can fly with.”
Bennett estimated that the airport vision process could finish up by December, though the holidays could push that to January.
He said there is still much anxiety among committee members and many “feel very uneasy about where this will end up.” However, he said he’s received thanks from both pro-growth and no-growth committee members for the openness of the process.
“And that’s a good sign,” Bennett said. “I don’t want to pretend I know how this will end up. But that said, I’m quite impressed with the progress 120-plus citizens have made in about six months.”