Andersen: The traumas and trials of traffic

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Christmas and New Year’s were bad, and spring break was no different. Aspen’s traffic fiasco was exasperating almost everywhere you went. If you were on Highway 82 at the wrong time and the wrong place, you were stuck in urban levels of congestion.

Riding Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses from Basalt to Aspen during rush hours over the Christmas holidays was almost as exasperating. Here is a description by a regular commuter who happens to be part of a citizen committee struggling to sort out traffic challenges in the Roaring Fork Valley: “I ride a RFTA bus from Basalt to and from Aspen five days a week. This photo depicts the joy of my rush-hour bus ride over the holidays, when I ended up standing 90 percent of the time. The experience is dismal.” (A scroll down showed a picture of a jam-packed, standing-room-only bus.) “If our valley is ever to become serious about solving our transportation challenges, we’ll need someday to offer visitors and residents a better experience than an overcrowded, hot, stuffy, noisy, swaying bus ride. (Note the heavy coats passengers in the photo are wearing, and consider that the bus temperature was 78 degrees.) Today, were it not for a personal commitment to reduce both traffic congestion and carbon pollution, I’d join with alacrity the great majority of my friends, colleagues and family who simply drive via McLain Flats and I-Smuggler.”

Most locals know what this commuter is talking about. By snaking through Aspen’s West End on Smuggler Street, they dodge Main Street gridlock. However, as one transportation committee member responded, there is a cost: “I- Smuggler (like I-70!) is the escape valve from hell. It has detracted from a high quality of life in the West End. It is no longer possible to walk safely, for children to enjoy the West End streets or even ride bikes from 3:30 to 6:30 Monday through Friday. We have to reduce the number of vehicles entering town.”

The other “alternative” route climbs over McLain Flats, bypasses upper 82 and makes it easier to enter and leave town. But it heavily impacts Cemetery Lane. The speed bumps there are enough to jostle your coffee, but traffic flows nonstop.

Some shrug at the peak traffic snarls and write them off as the price we pay for prosperity. But traffic peaks have a way of becoming the norm. The commuter I quoted above summed up his remarks with a note of resignation: “None of the true solutions are easy or cheap, and that’s why we’re stuck where we are.”

“Stuck” is right, but not because of RFTA. Our valleywide bus system is excellent if you ride at off-hours. A few weeks after the Christmas holidays, I got on a rapid-transit bus at Basalt and had the entire thing to myself all the way to Eighth Street. I felt like a billionaire, with my personal driver and a cavernous vehicle to stretch out in.

Here are some thoughts from members of this de facto transit committee through an email chain that show options for the stuckness of our valleywide transportation system:

• “The problem with making 82 four lanes into town, either by adding lanes in the S-curves or bringing two to four lanes across Marolt, is that the jam-up will still occur on Main Street. Adding lanes is what all the urban areas in America have always chosen, which has had horrible results.”

• “The city, (Aspen Skiing Co.), Pitkin County, Basalt and Carbondale, Eagle and Garfield counties all need to be part of the overall solution. The airport could be the storage point for commuting vehicles, and smaller vans running every 10 minutes could transport people into town.”

• “Control growth: Traffic is a function of the number of people who want to get somewhere. A long-term way to limit traffic growth is to limit the amount of new homes, lodging or attractions to the area — like skiing. There’s certainly a contingent who would love this idea, but it too has its drawbacks.”

And so we’re stuck, sometimes literally, fuming in traffic jams that we see as a failure of road capacity but, more so, as a failure of planning.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays when he’s not fighting for a seat on a RFTA bus. He may be reached at