Stone: Traffic jam rage, willful stupidity and one bright idea
A Stone’s Throw
I got angry sitting in Aspen’s traffic jam one morning last week. (Just for the record, it was the inbound traffic jam from the airport to Main Street, not the outbound jam from the Jerome to the roundabout.)
Getting angry is, of course, what one does in traffic jams. Aspen’s contribution to global warming isn’t the pollution from the cars stuck in the traffic jam. It’s the cloud of white-hot rage rising from all those furious drivers.
My first thoughts that particular day were that Aspen will just flat never solve the traffic jam. If it were ever going to happen, it would have happened by now.
In fact, it occurred to me that it might even be a violation of city regulations to fix the problem. The traffic jam probably qualifies for historic preservation by now. I mean, if some of those ugly 1960s fake Swiss ski chalets deserve “historic” status, our ugly decades-old traffic jam certainly does.
The traffic jam is one of Aspen’s defining characteristics.
It’s ironic that even as many of us fight to retain what remains of Aspen as a real community with real history and real character, we still tolerate that hideous mess at the entrance to town — a mess that poisons everyone’s Aspen experience.
It’s like being deeply in love with someone but every time you see them, the first thing you do is have a vicious fight. Then comes the loving. Then another vicious fight as you leave — with the prospect of yet another screaming round of ugliness next time you get together. How long would that relationship last?
OK. By the time I’d finished thinking all that, I’d made it through the airport traffic merge and all the way (Yes!) to the Owl Creek traffic light.
And my anger shifted to the sheer stupidity of Aspen rejecting its last best chance at actually solving the traffic jam: the train.
Hang on. Forgive my euphemism. When I said “stupidity,” what I really meant was “willfully ignorant, blind, dishonest, pigheaded stupidity.” OK. That’s more like it.
Sure, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority — despite its unbearable arrogance — does a decent job of hauling people up and down the valley.
But a train would be so much better — running on a separate right of way, out of traffic, able to add more cars as necessary to handle heavier passenger loads, mostly immune to the problems of rain and snow and accidents. And, oh yeah, exempt from traffic jams.
For those who weren’t around when it all went down, we had a good chance at it. We had train companies that were willing to cover most of the capital cost. We even had rails in place most of the way from Glenwood to Aspen.
But the town voted it down.
Why? I could go into detail, but there’s no room here, so I’ll just say: See above, “willfully ignorant, blind, dishonest, pigheaded stupidity.”
(And speaking of willful stupidity, RFTA, which has control of the railway right of way, put the icing on the cake by selling off the actual rails for no apparent good reason except to make absolutely certain that no one could ever put a train in the valley.)
And ever since that failed attempt at a creative solution to Aspen’s traffic problem, everyone’s focus has been on simple, brutish answers: Build a big highway! Four lanes straight into town! Dig a big hole under Wagner Park for a garage!
The response to those brute solutions — fortunately, so far — has been “No.”
And so we have the irony: preserving a small, historic town (sort of) that you have to swim through a cesspool to get to.
Speaking of cesspools, by this point in my traffic-jam morning I had finally reached the roundabout — which was at a standstill, backed up from the Cemetery Lane traffic light. Which was backed up from the S-curves. Which were pretty much backed up all the way down Main Street into the heart of town.
Why? Because there’s just too much damn traffic.
Enough about my morning drive.
I understand that the City Council is looking at some zoomy, futuristic solutions to the mess at Main. They’re talking about fleets of self-driving cars. How cool is that?
Sounds groovy, I guess — although I lean toward personal jetpacks and teleportation.
I think the futuristic fantasies are really just another way to get nothing done.
But I have, in fact, heard one idea that might even work. Not futuristic, just creative.
It came from my old pal (and sometimes ideological sparring partner) Ward Hauenstein.
His idea — oversimplified and undoubtedly slightly distorted (sorry, Ward) — is this:
Tell Mark Hunt he can build his two affordable hotels but not in downtown Aspen. Instead, he has to build one big hotel (maybe even bigger than he suggested — maybe 100 rooms? 120?) on the city-owned BMC West lumberyard property out by the airport. Affordable room rates will be a contractual part of the deal.
Also part of the deal: a major parking structure on the same property — for hotel guests but also as an intercept lot. With guaranteed free, very frequent service (every 15 minutes?) into town by electric bus from 6 to 2:30 a.m.
So what does Aspen get from that deal?
The town grows but only a little bit — 100 hotel rooms, let’s say. But they’re the affordable rooms a lot of people want, and that affordability is guaranteed. And they’re not in the heart of downtown, so the town avoids a couple of inappropriate, big buildings in the wrong place — particularly the egregious monster at Main and Monarch.
And those rooms don’t add to the damn traffic jam.
And the parking garage that goes with the rooms helps keep some additional traffic out of town by promising (and delivering) regular, fast, free, nonpolluting transportation into downtown.
Is it a great idea? Maybe. Will it work? Maybe.
Is it brutish and willfully stupid? Absolutely not.
All it requires is creativity, will and leadership.
Which, I suppose, means it hasn’t got a chance.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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