Perske: Rethinking Aspen’s tunnel vision
The city of Aspen recently provided an extensive review of the 1998 Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision for the Highway 82 Entrance to Aspen. These NEPA documents are a quarter of a century old, and city staff are concerned about the aging Castle Creek Bridge, which provides the only access to Aspen.
They seemed to support building the Preferred Alternative with a wider bridge and a landscaped “land bridge” tunnel. Public meetings were held to explain the highway design and the complex alternative selection matrix supporting it. This information was provided prior to the 2023 city elections and became a major point of discussion during the campaign.
However, none of the candidates supported the 1998 EIS Preferred Alternative as-is. The candidates received numerous critical comments from interested or directly affected individuals and had concerns of their own.
Construction of the Entrance to Aspen requires a vote to allow the use of city open space. For 25 years, community leaders and elected officials declined to schedule this vote and effectively endorsed the “do nothing” alternative. In retrospect, that was probably the wisest choice.
The formerly Preferred Alternative does not improve mobility, safety, or transit operations and lacks the support necessary for voter approval. It provides only two lanes for traffic with two short, transit exclusive lanes that would dead end in each direction. The land bridge tunnel blocks Cemetery Lane access and increases safety risks.
Federal NEPA regulations require a project EIS re-evaluation after five years of inaction or whenever social-economic or environmental conditions change. Perspectives have changed since 1998, and the community has undergone a generational change with transitions of community leaders and elected officials.
People are now asking for fundamental changes to the EIS Preferred Alternative and have a sound legal basis to challenge it. The 1998 Entrance to Aspen EIS requires a formal re-evaluation, and the public deserves an opportunity for meaningful input to that process.
The narrow Castle Creek Bridge is vulnerable to delays or closures for highway maintenance or accidents. It is ironic that the Preferred Alternative would also be Aspen’s only point of access and would be just as vulnerable to closures.
A major flaw in the Preferred Alternative is that the proposed “land bridge” tunnel blocks existing intersections with Cemetery Lane or West Hallam and Highway 82. Some earlier alternatives had included these intersections, which dispersed local traffic and provided a second route out of town.
Eliminating these intersections will disrupt transit routes and increase local congestion by forcing Cemetery Lane and west Aspen traffic to backtrack to 7th and Main. Aspen will still have just one point of access and the added physical restriction of a tunnel. Tunnels are confined spaces and are very dangerous in the event of an accident or fire, which would also block all Aspen traffic.
First responders must be specially equipped and trained for any tunnel incidences, including evacuations and fires. Tunnel emergencies that result in fires or fumes pose a deadly threat and could damage the tunnel structure itself.
In the past 25 years, we have seen alternative fuels and electric vehicle technology adapted to transit systems. Electric vehicle or large EV transit battery fires are some of the most difficult and deadly fires in a confined space.
These tunnel safety concerns were not considered in the 1998 EIS and should be part of the current public discussion. Aspen area construction costs are rapidly rising, and the land bridge feature adds tens of millions to the total project cost while providing minimal open-space mitigation.
The Entrance to Aspen is about seven city blocks long and should be designed as an extension of Main Street. The land bridge could be eliminated with an open city parkway maintaining intersections for Cemetery Lane and museum traffic.
When viewed from the street, a tunnel hardly provides a unique entrance experience. Does the community really favor a tunnel through an artificial hill that compromises safety and unnecessarily restricts local access?
What are the current cost estimates for implementing the landscaped land bridge and the 1998 Preferred Alternative? These are really basic questions, and new alternative designs should be presented in an EIS re-evaluation before scheduling another public open-space vote. The voters should be allowed to chose the design concept they support.
I am a retired CDOT program engineer and was involved the earlier Highway 82 EIS. I am still interested in the Entrance to Aspen and offer my opinions and comments for your consideration.
In 1990, I presented a progress report on Highway 82 improvements and acknowledged the result of Aspen’s first vote approving the direct Main Street connection. I mentioned that CDOT would move forward with designs to replace the 102-year-old Maroon Creek Bridge. That beautiful new bridge was finally opened for traffic 18 years later on July 2008, and the old bridge was retired.
We’ve made some good progress in the past 33 years, but we still struggle to find the best Entrance to Aspen.
Richard Perske is a Grand Junction resident.