What’s next for transit?
The voting is over for now, and the question facing Aspen is this: What should the city do now about the Entrance to Aspen?
In clear numbers, voters have rejected the idea of increasing the city’s debt by $20 million to build a light-rail system along Highway 82 from Brush Creek Road to the middle of town, as well as the idea of spending up to $16 million for a dedicated busway along the same alignment.
The electoral results seem to put the city between the proverbial rock and a hard place, leaving it up to the City Council to find a way to get over its internal differences and figure out where to go from here.
One thing that this week’s election made clear is that, if the voters get confused enough by an intimidatingly long and complex ballot, not to mention the campaigns related to the issues on the ballot, they can react angrily.
Another conclusion drawn by some is that “the leaders [of Aspen] don’t know how to lead,” in the words of local pro-rail activist Charlie Tarver.
Many voters, for example, reacted angrily to the advisory questions put on the ballot by the City Council to gauge voter sentiment on various transportation-related matters.
The advisory questions were called “self-serving,” “patronizing” and “insulting.” In the words of anti-rail council member Tom McCabe, the questions “were loaded … [as if to ask] would you rather have this, or put a stick in your eye?”
What effect voter anger had on results at the polls is tough to say. But it has not gone unnoticed that nearly 600 voters said they like the idea of allowing “unlimited traffic” to flow into town – an idea that, in reality, has almost no support among the general public.
Is the train derailed?
“From here on out, rail is done,” declared anti-rail activist Jeffrey Evans, a Crystal River Valley resident who has been leading the fight against Aspen’s light-rail proposal.
While pro-rail activists would not agree with Evans’ assessment, there are indications that the focus for the near future will be on working out a detailed plan to beef up the upper valley’s bus system in order to meet the area’s mass-transit needs.
Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards, who has been solidly behind the rail proposal, said Wednesday that the City Council will be sitting down to hash out “all the issues that surround transportation to resolve those issues once and for all.”
She and others have maintained that the only two positive transit-related outcomes in Tuesday’s election were voter mandates to “make mass transit work” [Referendum 2J] and for local governments to keep working together to come up with a workable integrated mass-transit plan. Part of that plan, according to Referendum 2K, is to hold yet another election “no later than November of the year 2000,” comparing buses and rail.
But in the meantime, Richards said, the council must turn its attention to “fully fleshing out development of the busway proposal,” aiming for a design that the two anti-rail council members, Tony Hershey and McCabe, can support.
This will include coming up with a design for sending bigger, cleaner-fuel buses up and down Main Street. It also will mean formulating a ballot question that specifically asks voters for permission to build a “dedicated busway” across the Marolt Park open space in conjunction with the new right of way planned for Highway 82.
A better bus plan
And, Richards said, it will mean coming up with a plan to obtain voter approval for a “regional transportation authority” that will provide a stable funding source and administrative framework for a truly valleywide Roaring Fork Transit Agency.
Both Hershey and McCabe have indicated that it is their goal, too, to begin working on the creation of an improved bus system, in line with the Colorado Department of Transportation’s “record of decision” concerning the Entrance to Aspen plan. The CDOT document calls for either a light-rail system or an improved bus system, along with a relocated two-lane “parkway,” to bring traffic and mass transit into Aspen on Highway 82.
“I think the City Council has an opportunity to work together more effectively,” said McCabe on Wednesday. “Let’s put rail aside.”
He said he is “sensitive” to the widely held concern that the anti-rail forces are merely paying lip service to the idea of an improved bus system, while their true goal is to ultimately have four full lanes of automobile traffic coming across a new bridge over Castle Creek.
To alleviate those concerns, McCabe pledged to work with the others on the council to come up with a “dedicated busway” that is not open to cars, and uses buses that burn cleaner fuels than the diesel buses now being used.
He said that one benefit of the rejection of rail is that the city is now free to spend its money on a new bus system, which he said should include cleaner-fuel buses and better-designed bus stops.
McCabe has said in the past that he is a train buff at heart, even though he thinks building a rail system here now would be “financially irresponsible.”
But, he said Wednesday, “At some point down the line, it may become painfully obvious to everyone that we need to up the ante, whether with rail or some other, new technology that comes up.”
Another bus/rail election?
The mayor, while eager to get to work on plans for an improved bus system, said that Referendum 2K “clearly calls for a November 2000 election … I don’t think it would be wise for council to ignore that. `Advisory’ means you’re asking for advice.” The electorate, she said, wants a clear choice between buses and trains, with equivalent information on both kinds of systems.
But Evans, Hershey and McCabe are unalterably opposed to holding another election to offer voters some comparative pricing information on trains and buses.
“I don’t care to go through the brain damage,” McCabe said.
Hershey predicted that, should such an election come to pass, rail would again go down to defeat.
And Evans said that such an election would be grounds for removing the elected officials from office.
“Now that both county voters and city voters have said `no’ to rail, that should be it,” Evans remarked. “From now on, it will no longer be a matter of whether rail will be built. It will be a matter of removing people from office.”
Another rail/bus election, he said, would be “an indication of the breakdown of the democratic process.”
Others, however, accuse Evans of undermining the democratic process by refusing to identify the contributors to his Common Sense Alliance, the group that put Initiative 200 – the rail question – on the ballot and then fought for its defeat.
It is impossible to say now whether local voters will face a rail/bus choice again next fall, although the valley’s rail advocates believe that is just what the voters want.
The most likely outcome, unfortunately, will be yet another raucous battle between the two sides of the transportation fence.
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International visitors have traditionally accounted for 10 to 20 percent of Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier visits in recent past seasons. Travel fears and restrictions tied to the coronavirus are expected to wipe out most of that market for 2020-21.