West End traffic woes prompt talk of ‘elephant’ Entrance to Aspen issue

The “elephant in the room” when it comes to Aspen’s traffic woes surfaced among area elected officials Thursday for the first time in more than four years.

The words “Entrance to Aspen” and most of the requisite bureaucratese that goes along with it — “Record of Decision,” “modified direct route” and “preferred alternative” — were finally talked about in public by Aspen-area elected officials after near silence on the issue since June 2017.

“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,” Aspen City Councilor Rachel Richards said at Thursday’s meeting of the Elected Officials Transportation Committee. “It’s not going away and it bothers our residents on a daily basis, whether they’re trying to get into town or trying to 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 impetus for the Entrance to Aspen finally surfacing again Thursday was not because it was on the EOTC meeting agenda. In fact, EOTC administrator David Pesnichak specifically said it hasn’t been looked at as part of any transportation initiatives currently under consideration.

Instead, a resident of Aspen’s West End brought it up during public comments at the beginning of the meeting because of the ever-increasing level of evening rush-hour traffic trying to escape Aspen through her neighborhood to avoid the massive daily congestion on Highway 82.

“(The traffic) has really gotten worse in the last year and, I would say, the past five or six years,” said Diane Moore, a former city of Aspen planning director in the early 1990s. “And it’s really become a safety and quality of life issue for those that live here. It’s not sustainable and it’s really dangerous.”

She implored the elected officials from the upper Roaring Fork Valley on the EOTC to tackle the “big picture” transportation issue of the Entrance to Aspen, and fix the currently “unacceptable impacts” to many residents of the entire valley.

“The long-term solutions, which were identified in the Record of Decision for the Entrance to Aspen, especially the preferred alternative, really need to be brought forward,” Moore said. “I know that focusing on the Entrance to Aspen won’t be easy. I’ve been there. It’s the elephant in the room.

“We desperately need your leadership on this.”

As Richards said, the Entrance to Aspen is, indeed, a complicated issue.

Its main driver is the 1998 Record of Decision, which was the result of several years of analysis of the Entrance to Aspen under the guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act and cost more than $3 million.

The final product of that analysis — known as the modified direct route or the preferred alternative — would screen off the S-curves and instead build four traffic lanes — including two public transit-only lanes and two normal traffic lanes — across the Marolt Open Space, located just east of the roundabout. That construction would include a tunnel and a new bridge across Castle Creek further south of the current bridge, and would hook up with Main Street via Seventh Street.

The last time the Entrance to Aspen was talked about by elected officials in any significant manner was during a June 2017 EOTC meeting in Snowmass Village. At the time, members of the committee — which includes Pitkin County commissioners, Aspen city councilors and Snowmass Village town councilors — heard the results of a nearly $500,000 study that looked at the cost of using light rail versus buses for public transportation on that modified direct route into and out of Aspen.

A transportation consultant who worked on the study said at that meeting that light rail would cost between $428 million and $528 million to build, while the four lanes across Marolt including two dedicated bus lanes would require between $159 million and $200 million.

Ralph Trapani, the consultant and former CDOT engineer, said his firm recommended the bus option because of the cost and because it would leave the light rail option open for the future.

However, there’s one other significant wrinkle to the problem, and the commissioners and councilors on the EOTC quickly became hung up on it back in 2017. That issue was and is Aspen voters.

City voters must be consulted before anything can happen at the Entrance to Aspen that involves building bus-only lanes across Marolt.

Voters approved two traffic lanes and a light rail corridor across the open space in 1996 by a margin of 59% to 41%. They then turned down the idea of two dedicated bus lanes and two traffic lanes in 2001, 54% to 46%. Finally, the same voters chose to retain the S-curves in a non-binding vote in 2002.

“If we don’t eliminate the S-curves, we’ll never get rid of the (traffic) backup to the (Pitkin County) Courthouse,” Richards, then a Pitkin County commissioner, said at the meeting in 2017. “I can’t see spending a dime on design or engineering until that vote — and that’s uncertain. But if you don’t do something long enough, the dam will break.”

But after an hour and 15 minutes of debate, then-Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron abruptly shut down all talk of the Entrance to Aspen for the next four years.

“There’s no political will to prioritize development of the Marolt Open Space,” Skadron told the surprised members of the committee at the time. “It’s a nonstarter with the Aspen City Council.”

Skadon promised a solution to “the entrance and mobility inside Aspen,” though those efforts soon fizzled. Meanwhile, traffic has only gotten worse in the interim years.

Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child said Thursday that the EOTC, the Pitkin County Commission, the Aspen City Council and the Snowmass Village Town Council should all take a close look at the Record of Decision, decide what needs to be modified if anything and what can be implemented to solve “the Entrance to Aspen problem.”

“I personally feel like we need four lanes somehow going … in and out of Aspen,” he said. “And we may likely need a second bridge in case something happens to the Castle Creek Bridge …”

Commissioner Patti Clapper said she sympathized with West End residents, who need a far more immediate solution than the Entrance to Aspen would provide, but warned against shutting down the West End to rush hour traffic.

“Because if we close the West End down, it will put the traffic back on 82,” she said. “It’s now backed up to Original Curve. It will be backed up Independence Pass before we know it with people trying to get out of town on 82.”

Richards then interrupted her.

“But maybe that’s the momentum we need to deal with it as a town,” she said.

Building the preferred alternative would not necessarily solve Aspen’s traffic woes. Aspen city councilors in 2017 noted the transportation study’s assessment that it would only shave two to three minutes off a commute, which one former councilor said it might not make it worth the money and fight that would surely go into building it.

The alternative across Marolt, however, would build two dedicated bus lanes into Aspen, which would prioritize public transit and, in theory, get people out of their cars. Buses currently must enter mixed traffic lanes through the S-curves, past Cemetery Lane and just beyond the roundabout before the right-hand lanes become bus only lanes, which slows them down.

Richards pointed out Thursday that adding more buses to the current mix only sticks more buses in gridlock traffic trying to exit Aspen.

Aspen City Councilman Skippy Mesirow acknowledged that the traffic in the West End is “atrocious” and noted that ridership on Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses has dropped 40% during the pandemic. Still, he questioned building what he called a “generational infrastructure project” that he said would bring more cars into Aspen.

Solutions to the traffic problem can be found in other areas, like building more affordable housing and somehow bringing fewer cars into the city to create a walkable downtown core, Mesirow said.

“If we’re going to invest in a generational infrastructure project, let’s do it for the future generation,” he said.

A group called the West End Pedestrian Safety Group has been formed to try and find a solution to the traffic problems in that neighborhood. Carbondale attorney Andrea Bryan, who has been hired by the group, described the problems Thursday as a “crisis” and said “it’s probably the most pressing issue that you as elected officials must address.”

“These (traffic) numbers are just too high for a residential neighborhood, and the problem just seems to be getting worse by the day,” Bryan said. “It’s rendering this neighborhood virtually unusable for the people who live there between 3 and 6 p.m.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the National Environmental Policy Act.