Woody Creek gas line’s projected location unlikely to change

A truck drives up McLain Flats in April. Black Hills wants to install 2½ miles of 6-inch gas line under and along McLain Flats Road from the triangle intersection of Smith Way, McLain Flats and Upper River Road in Woody Creek to Trentaz Drive.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times file

Changing the route of a gas line set to be built through Woody Creek this summer would raise complex and possibly insurmountable issues, while likely providing only limited benefits, officials said Thursday.

Among those issues is the probable 30-day closure of the popular Rio Grande Trail during the peak summer season, coupled with the fact that using the trail alignment for the gas line will still require construction along a significant section of McLain Flats Road for months, said Jon Peacock, Pitkin County manager.

“That’s our busiest trail (during the summer),” Peacock said. “People would not be able to, say, ride from Aspen to the Woody Creek Tavern for 30 days.”

A spokeswoman for Black Hills Energy on Thursday also cast doubt on the possibility of changing the gas line route into Aspen, which the company wants to begin building in less than two weeks.

“It’s most important to us to complete the project before the next heating season,” Carly West said. “The timeline is the biggest priority.”

Black Hills wants to install 2½ miles of 6-inch gas line under and along McLain Flats Road from the triangle intersection of Smith Way, McLain Flats and Upper River Road in Woody Creek to Trentaz Drive. The first 4,000 feet of the project up from that intersection to the flat section of McLain Flats will require ripping up the asphalt so the line can be built under the road.

The rest of the line will be built on the shoulder of McLain Flats, though that cannot be done in that first section because the shoulder is already clogged with other utilities, county officials have said. Black Hills wants to begin the project April 16.

The backup gas line is meant to provide redundancy to Aspen’s main gas line in case an emergency requires a shutdown. Sections of the line on either side of the McLain Flats portion have already been built.

McLain Flats — which generally handles about 3,500 cars a day in the summer — will be reduced to one lane from April to October if the current alignment plan is approved. The road provides a valuable route that can relieve some of the pressure when summer traffic backs up on Highway 82.

The permit for the gas line has not yet been issued, Peacock said Thursday. One of the conditions the county put on the permit was that a Black Hills representative had to present the plan to the Woody Creek Caucus, which occurred March 28.

At that meeting, a contractor with the project was asked by a caucus member whether the Rio Grande Trail had been considered for the gas line, said Bill Dinsmoor, Woody Creek Caucus moderator. The contractor said Black Hills had asked an official with the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program about using the trail and were told “no way,” he said.

“We were sort of shocked they had that authority, or thought they had that authority,” Dinsmoor said.

That prompted Dinsmoor and the caucus to ask the county to take a step back and reconsider the project. It is a backup line and building it is not an emergency, he said, meaning it could be tabled for a year.

Gary Tennenbaum, director of the Open Space and Trails program, said Thursday that he received one phone call from a Black Hills representative 18 months ago and said he wouldn’t be inclined to recommend closing the popular trail during the summer. He emphasized that he heard no specifics about the proposal during the phone call and saw no official application requesting use of the Rio Grande Trail for a gas line.

Peacock described the call as a “check-in” from the energy utility.

Because Black Hills is a utility, it has an automatic right under Colorado law to use the road right of way for a pipeline, though the county can impose conditions on the project, he said. The company does not have an automatic right to use the trail right of way, Peacock said.

Besides closing the most popular summer trail in Pitkin County for a month, realigning the gas line using the Rio Grande Trail poses other problems, Peacock said.

First, using the Rio Grande alignment would only spare construction on the section of McLain Flats between the triangle intersection and White Star Drive, he said. After that, Black Hills would have to route the pipeline up to McLain Flats from the Rio Grande, and construct the pipeline along McLain Flats for a large section of the road to Trentaz Drive.

On Thursday, Black Hills officials discovered that one of the private property parcels the pipeline would have to cross coming up from the Rio Grande contains a conservation easement that allows no improvements at all, Peacock said.

“That issue probably wouldn’t make (the Rio Grande Trail) feasible,” he said. “They determined they wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway.”

And while county officials won’t issue the permit until they hear from county commissioners Tuesday, the project looks to be on track for this summer, Peacock said.

“Unless we get new information, I don’t see how we have a leg to stand on to deny this permit,” he said.