Chad Klinger: Some perspective on Aspen’s traffic woes
September 18, 2017
Hearing the incessant anguished and heated cries over Aspen's traffic congestion, together with many and varied suggestions for easing our suffering, I thought it might be instructive to consider the experiences of two other American communities.
The first is the town of Wallace, a picturesque old mining town nestled in northern Idaho's Silver Valley in the Bitterroot Mountains. In many ways Wallace is Aspen's sister city, sharing a very parallel history at least until the mid-20th century, when Aspen became Cinderella while Wallace remained a drab kitchen wench. Even then, the two "sisters" required the same massive Environmental Protection Agency Superfund makeover for highly toxic mining wastes.
More pertinently, as with Aspen, geography makes Wallace difficult to get in and out of. For decades it boasted the only traffic light along the entire stretch of Interstate 90, from Boston to Seattle. This is because the interstate simply stopped at the edges of town, since punching it through would have destroyed half the town.
This situation, of course, bolstered what little economic vitality the town had left after mining silver lost its profitability. Motorists forced to travel through town at 25 mph often decided to gas up, go get a meal and perhaps spend the night in the equivalent of the Hotel Jerome.
In the 1990s, however, I-90 was completed, thanks to engineering gymnastics akin to running I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. Now, of course, potential commerce speeds by the town "at 65 miles per dollar," as one local poet put it. Lesson learned: To enhance convenience for the broader public, you sometimes have to murder a community.
The second place to think about is New York, for which ingress and egress are made challenging not only by geography, but by the maze of tiny little streets going back to Dutch and English colonial times. Think "S-curve" many times over.
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But even before the automobile, New Yorkers began to address these challenges with a series of engineering marvels, starting with the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel underneath it, followed by dozens of more bridges and tunnels. Then came the car and with it Robert Moses, who with New Deal energy built one parkway, expressway and beltway after another.
But after all this, getting in and out of lower and midtown Manhattan remains an inordinately time-consuming, expensive and unpleasant ordeal.
And New York remains an absolutely dreadful place into which to bring an automobile. During the 25 years I lived there, my parents never owned a car, and I didn't bother to get a driver's license until I was 22 — I simply had no use for one.
So what was the net gain? The losses were innumerable. The Cross-Bronx Expressway, for example, shattered a number of vibrant neighborhoods, leaving their residents to live in a colder, meaner world with ever-growing urban decay. And Moses was set to do the same thing to lower Manhattan, until community activists stopped him.
Considering all this, the Aspen transit task force may be demonstrating a certain amount of wisdom in adopting the Latin motto "festina lente" — make haste slowly — in its proposals, or lack thereof, for addressing the valley's traffic woes. Bold new schemes always have big consequences, which a great many people will greatly regret.
Aspen sits on the horns of a dilemma, whereby somebody's ox will be gored no matter what gets done or not done, and progress is sometimes as overrated as sticking with what one knows and loves, or at least can put up with.
Of course, for those who foresee spending the rest of their lives in the Buttermilk bottleneck, I have little to offer other than saying "suck it up." Twas ever thus, and ever will remain. You're not spending four hours commuting to L.A. or three hours to Manhattan, and you're breathing cleaner air and seeing prettier scenery. And you're making a living, some of you a very good living.
So next Thanksgiving get an extra slice of turkey and open another bottle of wine.
Things ain't so bad.
Chad Klinger lives in Basalt.
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