Stone: Evil lurks: The horror at the edge of town
A Stone’s Throw
Remember the classic horror movie? The walls oozing blood, the maniacal laughter in the dark, the hand reaching for the doorknob …
“No! Don’t open that door!”
Well, that’s us reaching for the fatal door, except here in Happy Valley, the door is a car door, and the horror that lurks is not a scar-faced hunchback or a nameless dread from beyond the grave. It’s … “The Traffic Jam on the Edge of Town?” (Maniacal laugh) “Part 82!”
You’ll scream (in frustration). You’ll gasp (on exhaust fumes). You’ll wet your pants (shouldn’t have had that second cup of coffee before getting in the car). You’ll lose your lunch (no time for lunch; you were half an hour late for work).
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I’m talking about that traffic jam right now, because we’re heading into peak summer season, when Aspen’s prime artery will clog like a fat man’s aorta after his 10,000th cheeseburger. A lot of people are about to get stuck in a lot of traffic for a lot of time — and they’re going to do a lot of cursing.
So we should start thinking with our (hopefully) rational minds right now, before things go to hell and our collective lizard brain takes over.
Aspen’s traffic jam is congenital, seared into our municipal DNA by the misalignment of Highway 82 and Main Street, which created the infamous S-curves.
That twisted trail into town was passable for decades, but once Aspen’s real boom began, the traffic backup was inevitable.
OK. We all know this. Nothing new here. The question remains: What are we going to do about it?
So far, our community’s approach to the problem has been twofold: 1. Shout about it, then, 2. Do nothing about it.
For some reason, this eminently sensible approach has not resulted in a solution.
We hear, of course, again and again, the fierce declaration that the real answer is simple: Cut the crap and build a damn four-lane highway across the Marolt Open Space and straight into town.
That solution has been proposed almost constantly for many years and is generally presented as basic common sense: If we have too many cars for our road, we need to build more road. Just that simple.
As one particularly outspoken highway guy wrote in one of his frequent letters to the editor on this topic, “The physical solution to the entrance to Aspen is both simple and obvious, and has been so for decades.”
And that brought to mind something written almost 100 years ago by a wise newspaper columnist (an unlikely combination of words: wise, newspaper and columnist): “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”
Yes, I suppose the four-lane straight shot would eliminate the two particular traffic jams we face right now: at the “wormhole” by the airport, where four lanes merge into two; and at the city limits, where traffic from the S-curves backs up, well, almost to the wormhole.
So that might sound like a “solution,” but all it would really do is move the jam from the outskirts of Aspen into the center of town, where traffic would pile up when the unimpeded flow of cars encountered traffic lights and parked cars and pedestrians and people slowing to turn left or right off Main Street.
Right now, the traffic jam acts like the swampland along the coast of Louisiana that damps down the storm surge. No one much likes swamps, but they reduce the flooding. Clear the swamps, and all those alligators get washed right into town.
I’ll let you untangle that metaphor on your own — but any way you look at it, the results aren’t pretty.
And, just making things worse, if the straight shot did seem to reduce the traffic jam, the immediate result would be that more people would abandon the buses and jump back into their cars.
So … even more alligators in town. (All looking for a place to park.)
It’s the classic “stuff and bags” problem. If you’re putting 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag, it doesn’t matter how wide you open the neck of the bag. All that stuff is just not going to fit.
I am reminded of the “Far Side” cartoon of a grotesquely inflated mosquito, clearly about to burst, its proboscis buried deep in someone’s flesh, while another mosquito shouts, “Pull out! You’ve hit an artery!”
Once we ram the blood-funnel of Highway 82 right into town, it’ll be too late to pull out.
So the four-lane straight shot is a classic case of clear, simple and wrong.
OK, wise guy, what’s your answer?
There is, of course, another often-suggested solution that is equally clear and equally simple to state — but fiendishly difficult to accomplish: Ban private cars in Aspen.
There would be staggering technical details and difficulties if we tried to do that.
We’d need an enormous intercept parking lot (at the airport, I would assume), an equally vast fleet of shuttles and limos (and helicopters?) into town and around town, and entry permits for local property owners and necessary commercial vehicles. And all of that would seem to require some sort of heavily guarded barrier, where permits would be checked (and trespassers shot).
Then there’s the minor detail of shutting down a state highway.
That might be easy enough in the winter, when Independence Pass is closed anyway, but what would we do in the summer? Keep Main Street-Highway 82 open, but ban stopping or turning off Main Street? That might work — with armed guards at every intersection.
There may be answers to these questions, but really, it’s hard to believe that this town could find the community will to actually turn Aspen into a car-free zone.
So what we have is another failed answer: clear, far from simple and maybe not wrong but probably impossible.
Which brings us back to our traditional approaches, noted above: Shout. Do nothing.
Well, it’s something to think about when you’re sitting in that traffic jam.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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