Andy Stone: Return of the Billboard scourge

It was back in the early 1960s that an improbable character with the improbable name of Bugsy Barnard saved Aspen from the plague of billboards.

Bugsy was one of the more colorful characters back in Aspen’s more colorful days. He was a pirate of sorts, a man of many adventures and, it often seemed, few scruples.

Along with many of those early re-settlers, Bugsy generally favored development of a kind and of a scale that seem incomprehensible and reprehensible these days.

But, when we consider that, we need to take into account the fact that Aspen was just barely emerging from the shadows of near-ghosthood back then. And if the Quiet Years sound like a charming idyll to us now, we should remember that starving only sounds like an artistic sort of thing to those who have never missed a meal except when they were trying to lose a few pounds.

Nonetheless, though Bugsy was all for economic boosterism, he realized that billboards were a scourge – and, back in those days, billboards were starting to sprout along Highway 82. So, under cover of darkness, accompanied by a like-minded crew, Bugsy cured that plague with a chainsaw.

Every billboard between Glenwood and Aspen was toppled and the Roaring Fork Valley was never bothered by billboards again.

Until now.

Now, it suddenly seems, a substantial contingent of people – people who would scorn the type of development that Bugsy favored – want to bring the billboards back.

But these people don’t just want billboards along the highway. They want to bring them right into the heart of Aspen.

And they don’t want billboards that just sit there blocking the view. They want billboards that move, billboards that get right in your face, belch smoke and occasionally run you off the road.

They want billboards on the side of RFTA buses.

What the hell are they thinking?

Well, to begin with, they’re thinking that RFTA is running deep in the red, so we might as well sell some advertising space on the side of the buses to raise a few bucks.

And they’re apparently thinking that, what the heck, the buses are already uglier than sin, so why not make ’em a little uglier.

I will admit that the problem of paying for mass transit is a troubling one.

The hook is that you can’t expect the people who ride the bus to pay the whole tab – because they’re not the only ones getting benefits from the bus system.

People driving their own cars get the benefit of having less traffic congestion to slow them down. People who don’t drive at all get the benefit of fewer cars in town, which means less congestion and less air pollution.

We all share the benefits, so we should all share the cost.

So how do you want to pay your share? By seeing something extra ugly a couple of dozen times a day? By seeing smoke-belching billboards cruising up and down the highway and through the middle of town all day every day?

And, while I’m thinking of it, do you want to make our visitors see that extra dose of ugliness, too? Do you want to make Aspen that much more like wherever they came from?

Heck, we have the fast food joints they can find back home. We’ve got the chain stores from back home. Now we even have the armed robberies they can enjoy back home. So why not have a fleet of buses with garish ads on the side – just like they’ve got back home.

So, we can bring back billboards, make our town a little uglier and help convince tourists that Aspen’s just a little less special.

All to save ourselves a few bucks.

Does that sound like a good idea to you?

You like that idea? Hey, if I give you 10 bucks, can I poke out your right eye with a sharp stick?

It’s just not a good deal.

And that gets us to the argument that they’re already ugly, so what difference does it make?

Let’s boil it down to the basics: If your blind date is about a hundred pounds overweight, does that make a case of acne OK, too? How about buck teeth and bad breath? What the heck, a hundred pounds overweight, serious acne, what difference does bad breath make?

I admit, I’m not exactly certain if billboards are the acne on the side of our buck-toothed buses or if they’re the buck teeth on the overweight buses with really bad breath.

But you get the idea.

The buses are already nasty, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

I say, draw it right here, right now: No ads on buses.

I think I’d cheerfully pay a nickel every time I see a bus if that nickel means the bus won’t have an ad on the side. That would probably come close to a dollar a day – $365 a year.

And, if that’s too much, I know I’d much rather pay an extra $10 – make it $20 – every year to register my car than see this valley filled with moving billboards.

Not enough? OK, I’d gladly pay an extra $50 – make it $100 – on my property tax than yield to the scourge that we all thought Bugsy Barnard had driven from this valley so many years ago.

Billboards on buses? Where’s Bugsy when you need him?

[Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times and he admits he rarely rides RFTA buses – which means he spends even more time looking at them from the outside. His e-mail address is]


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