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The Entrance to Aspen: where we are, and what city officials still want to know

 A RFTA bus drives over the Castle Creek Bridge, as seen from the Marolt Trail. The bridge could be replaced in a new location as part of the Entrance to Aspen project.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
A RFTA bus drives over the Castle Creek Bridge, as seen from the Marolt Trail. The bridge could be replaced in a new location as part of the Entrance to Aspen project.

The Entrance to Aspen is a contentious issue that has been a topic of discussion in the community for decades.

Now, it’s back on the table, as Aspen’s city council and other officials determine whether the previously approved plan is the best fit for the city, and what it needs from the Colorado Department of Transportation to move forward.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Halle Zander: So why don't we start off big picture here. What's the preferred alternative and how did we get here?

Caroline Llanes: Yeah, so basically the preferred alternative is the plan agreed upon by the city of Aspen, CDOT in the Federal Highway Administration in 1998 in this document called the Record of Decision. And it establishes basically the plan for the transit future of Aspen and Pitkin County.

So if implemented, the Preferred Alternative—which is what they called the plan—it would basically reroute Highway 82 to make a more direct connection to Main Street in Aspen. It would run under the Marolt Open Space where a land bridge would be built, and then it would go over a new Castle Creek Bridge, which is in a new location that aligns with Main Street. So there'd be no more S-curves on the way into town. In this vision, the highway has two general purpose lanes, one going in each direction as well as two dedicated mass-transit lanes. This plan wasn't really designed to ease traffic congestion for single occupant cars. It was really meant to move people towards mass-transit and ease traffic in that way. Originally, that was going to be light rail, but that’s not really feasible anymore due to cost.

Zander: So the city has paid a lot of attention to the Castle Creek Bridge. What's the status? Is the bridge in good condition right now?

Llanes: Yeah. A New Castle Creek Bridge is a key component of this larger entrance to Aspen project. So the city has kind of been using it to ease the public back into discussions about the preferred alternative. And there may be kind of a time crunch on that because in a letter to the city recently, CDOT officials wrote that once the bridge is rated “poor,” it will begin work on a new bridge, and that'll be in the alignment of the preferred alternative. So we'll know more about that when it gets re-inspected in 2024.

Zander: Okay, so the Preferred Alternative was approved more than 20 years ago now. Is that still what the community wants?

Llanes: That's not entirely clear, but it seems like the answer is, “not really, no.” The city has changed a lot in the past 20 years, especially in its demographics. I think we can see that pretty clearly, especially after COVID. And I think folks have been really engaged on this issue. For example, people have come to meetings with these buttons and they say “the S-curves are sexy.” So clearly, they're fans of the entrance to Aspen as it exists now.

And on top of that, the current city council isn't super enthused about the plan either. During a meeting earlier this week, city staff considered maybe doing some studies on traffic and property impacts, maybe even a schematic design for a new bridge. And three councilors basically said outright that they wouldn't support the funding request, and the other two weren't really keen to say they were in favor of it. So here's Mayor Torre.

Torre: I, too, am not able to support this funding request moving forward this evening. I just can't keep going down this road of spending money on the preferred alternative when I don't really think that that's community consensus for what we want to do moving forward.

Llanes: Torre and the rest of council clarified that they weren't in love with the entrance to Aspen the way it is now with the S-curves and everything, but they don't really like the preferred alternative as the plan they want to spend all this time and money on.

Zander: So where does that leave us? Is the city any closer to actually implementing a plan at all?

Llanes: Yeah. So we're in a little bit of a holding pattern right now. Basically, what the city needs to do is sit down with CDOT and likely the Federal Highway Administration and really just hash out all the details. CDOT was able to answer a bunch of the city's questions earlier this year in a letter, but in some ways it really opened up more questions rather than settling the issue. And here's Torre earlier this week detailing some of the areas where they need more clarification.

Torre: We want to look at near-term and localized solutions that we can be working on. We want to get more information about the bridge and what it really takes. We want to get more information about what our community might be more willing to support instead of being 50/50 on this issue. We want to know more about the environmental impacts and what the EIS actually does take to get back into. So I think we have more questions around this before we can move into some direction that says, yes, we need to spend money on these items.

Llanes: And then there's also the question of whether Aspen residents need to vote on the entrance to Aspen, which is really not clear at all.

Zander: So tell me more about this potential vote. Why don't we know whether it's necessary?

Llanes: Yeah, so this is a state highway. The bridge is a CDOT asset and they're responsible for the safety and maintenance of the bridge. And they say that when the time comes, they'll repair or replace the bridge in alignment with the preferred alternative. And they don't need a vote from Aspen on whether they can do that.

But the city isn't really sure that's the case. They’ve had to vote on nearly every aspect of the plan up until this point, so it wouldn't be out of the ordinary to confirm it with a vote again.

And I want to be totally clear: when I spoke to CDOT in March, they were very upfront—they want to be partners with the city on this project. They don't think a vote is needed, but if Aspen were to come to them with information and say, actually we think this is necessary, they really want to sit down and talk about it.

Zander: So what would it take to get a new preferred alternative?

Llanes: So basically, if the city were to undertake a new Record of Decision to get to a new Preferred Alternative, they'd have to go through the same rigorous process they went through 20-25 years ago. And coming to the Record of Decision was a multiyear campaign that the city undertook in partnership, not just with the state and the feds, but also with Pitkin County, Snowmass Village, and the Elected Officials Transportation Committee (EOTC).

So they'd have to do a new environmental impact statement. And that's a requirement of federal law through the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. And the first time they did this, CDOT started that process in ‘94, and we didn't get the decision until ‘98. So it's a multiyear, in-depth process and it won't be cheap. Recently, a project near Durango underwent the process and it was about $2 million, and here in Aspen, that could cost up to $8 million now. And CDOT paid for this the first time around in the 90s, and they have said they won't pay for it again.

And it's really important to remember that in the run up to choosing the preferred alternative that happened in '98, the city, state and the feds, they considered 43 other alternatives in the process. I also want to look at the ‘98 record of decision because of the objectives of the project. There's one objective that's really unique and that's “community acceptability.” And what that means is that it's literally built into this plan that the Aspen community has to be on board with this, that Aspen's community character has to be taken into account. That's built into this federal document. That's a really rare thing for a document of this level to incorporate. So if the city does go forward with a new record of decision and a new NEPA process, a new environmental impact statement, they run the risk of losing that very unique provision that they had the first time around.

Zander: All right. So Councilor Bill Guth lives in a neighborhood that would be impacted by this project, near the bus stop at Eighth and Hallam. He said before that he'd be personally impacted by the preferred alternative. And then this week he said he couldn't support anything related to it. Should he recuse himself from further discussion on this issue?

Llanes: I think that it would lend a lot of credibility to Council if he did. I can't say for sure whether that's the right thing to do or not, but I think that it would ease a lot of concerns that the public has.

Zander: Thanks, Caroline, for breaking that all down for us.

Llanes: Thank you, Halle!

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.
Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.