Andersen: System failure in the Roaring Fork |

Andersen: System failure in the Roaring Fork

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

A friend confessed the other day that his wife had given up commuting on Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses. A recent rape in Snowmass and an attempted rape at her midvalley bus stop have made it too scary for her to ride night buses.

“This is what it’s come to in this valley,” he shrugged.

A few weeks ago, I tuned in as a KDNK reporter gave a stunning recitation of the Basalt police blotter — a litany of criminal activity and erratic behaviors that belie the charms of small-town Basalt. Crime reports have become everyday, front-page fodder.

Growth pangs occur when a community transitions from rural to urban, when more people and more cars result in system failure. And yet, real estate developers up and down the Roaring Fork Valley want to pack it even tighter. For example, Eagle County is considering a mega-development at El Jebel euphemistically called “The Tree Farm,” which would compound density into an exurban dystopia.

This valley doesn’t need more people. It’s like a movie theater with all the seats full. Do we sit on one another’s laps? Or do we have the right and courage to say, “Enough!”? Here lies the moral conundrum of local autonomy weighed on qualitative measures in setting limits to growth.

The development industry will refute the negatives and argue that there’s always room for more. Capital knows no bounds when everything is measured by the bottom line, when communities and quality of life fall second to profits.

Violent crime is a byproduct of urbanization; so are traffic jams. Both are failures of planning. Traffic, crime, stressed-out social services and strained infrastructure occur when the interests of capital pack more people and cars into crowded roadways and spaces. Highway 82 is a case in point. Choke points like the Entrance to Aspen or the Glenwood Springs bridge make congestion the norm.

For any sane person, a miles-long caterpillar of cars is unacceptable, and yet it is endured by hundreds of drivers stuck in their glass-and-steel cocoons — flocking like lemmings to and from their workplaces. Traffic volume is one measure of capital success, but gridlock is a failure for communities that are often struggling behind the bulging growth curve.

Quality of life drops in proportion to each mile of idling vehicles and to every police report sensationalized on the covers of the local papers. It is ironic that the allure of rural landscapes is a selling point for developers whose projects convert rural values into urban maladies.

The capital success of the Roaring Fork Valley is well-established, but it’s never enough. Stunning natural attractions and cultural enrichments are exploited by real estate developers who are often in the business of selling excess to excessive consumers. The trade-offs of dysfunction are paid by all, but especially by communities where it’s no longer safe for a woman to ride the bus at night for fear of rape or when travel for one’s livelihood is a stressor.

Quality of life equates to health, vitality, happiness, peace, tranquility, fulfillment, material comfort and security. The crush of capital often compromises these elements and strains the delicate balance of community. The collective future of the valley is at risk because we all pay for the ills while only the few reap the big gains.

Economic opportunity is obviously part of any healthy community, but not when development pressures trade public well-being for urban pitfalls that people are fleeing cities to escape. Now we find urban growth at our door, and we must rely on elected officials to keep it at bay by imposing reasonable limits.

The Aspen airport plans a major expansion. Highway advocates push for more lanes and more cars. Hotel builders beg for more rooms. Subdividers salivate over disappearing rural landscapes. The erosion of small-town sensibilities is the price of the perpetual quest for capital.

There are higher values than developer profits, higher values than capital growth. Our elected officials, valleywide, must recognize that future development will only stress an already failing system. It will fill the theater to bursting, and that’s not a show any of us wishes to see.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at