Guest Commentary: Time to dig deeper on Crystal trail proposal
December 15, 2017
When we discuss the Crystal Valley Trail, what are the real issues? It's not just about riding bikes — who could be against the general concept of a bike path? Nobody.
Everybody thinks that riding a bike in a beautiful setting is a worthy pursuit. But the details matter, and not every bike trail is worth the financial cost or the impact it has on its environment. It is not just the impact to wildlife either; there are many other considerations.
First and foremost, is there an actual demand to use this particular trail, or just support for bike trails in general? I asked Dale Will of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails what the projections were for usage of this trail and his response was, "That's a tough number to pull out of the air." He could cite only one survey that drew just 149 responses and added that his "gut feeling" was that the main demand would be from the residents who live in the valley (so he's building it just for us!). He didn't think it would get nearly as much use as the Rio Grande Trail, and I agree.
Is it worth the debatable impacts on wildlife, and even the low-ball estimate of $20 million for a trail that is hardly used? Admittedly, this trail project would not only fulfill Dale's longtime dream but also justify the huge budget that Open Space and Trails manages, for years to come.
Second, how accurate are the cost and impact estimates? The two options estimate a price of $100 million for option A (highway alignment) and $20 million for option B. After a meeting with Will to address some simple logistical questions about a section of the trail with which I am familiar, it became apparent that these estimates have been manipulated to achieve a desired result. The extensive maps and accompanying impact charts are essentially smoke and mirrors. Many costs and impacts were glossed over or completely ignored (For example, the $20 million for B does not include any money to acquire the miles of private property that would be required. Is the plan to simply confiscate this property from its legal owners?) You can watch Will attest to this on YouTube; search for "Q&A with Dale Will."
When it comes to the engineering and cost estimates, why was the west side of Highway 133 ignored? Instead, option A tries to squeeze the trail between the road and the river, where there is already a guard rail, so the trail would need to be cantilevered over the river. Ask any non-engineer which side would more easily accommodate a trail, and they would pick the west side. But I guess if you're trying to inflate the price, then you better make it more difficult to build. Using the west side also would eliminate the horrendous destruction to riparian habitat that is unavoidable on the river side. Pitkin County requires its citizens to maintain a 100-foot setback from all riparian areas; shouldn't the county follow its own rules?
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Third, apart from the possible long-term effects to wildlife, what will be the immediate impacts of the construction process itself? All the excavating, paving equipment and other vehicles, will decimate the river bank, riparian habitat and existing flora. Let's be honest, this is not a path, it is a 10-foot-wide paved sidewalk from Carbondale to Redstone. The Open Space and Trails wildlife study assumed just a 25-foot-wide area of disturbance to be created by the bulldozers, dump trucks and other construction vehicles. This seems totally unrealistic. Try to turn a dump truck around in a 25-foot-wide area. Look at any construction site and you can imagine what Filoha Meadow will look like during construction. Also, hundreds of trees would need to be cut down along the length of the trail to accommodate paving and new railings.
Finally, is it reasonable to confiscate private property in order to perpetrate a wholesale disfigurement of this beautiful valley? Have you seen the images of the Clear Creek Trail? (Check out the "Peaks to Plains Trail Flyover" video on YouTube). It has been promoted by Open Space and Trails as a model for much of the Crystal Trail, and to me it is a concrete abomination. It's designed for people who don't know what a "natural" setting actually looks like.
I think there should be a moratorium on further development of this trail plan until there has been a serious effort made to determine how much use it will get, (not just who thinks a bike trail is a "good thing"), and until there is an independent audit of the plans, cost estimates and impacts, to determine if they reflect actual conditions.
Lee Hollowell is a resident of the Crystal River Valley.
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