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For the week of Dec. 15, 1999 through Dec. 21, 1999

Ketchum planners study Aspen’s transportation dilemma


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

ASPEN—When it comes to rural resort area travel, perhaps no two U.S. cities are as akin to one another as Aspen, Colo., and Ketchum.

Both cities are at the destination ends of scenic mountain river valleys.

Both have major roadways that span the length of the valleys, providing transportation for the thousands of resort-oriented workers who live "down valley," as well as for tourists.

Both are experiencing growing pains as urban Americans seek solace beneath towering mountain backdrops.

In the summer, as many as 29,000 vehicles will drive the predominantly two-lane highway serving Aspen, contrasted to the 15,000 cars per day that travel the Wood River Valley’s state Highway 75.

As a result of its booming traffic, parking in Aspen is scarce, making Ketchum look like an empty department store parking lot in comparison. Also, traffic jams are common in the Roaring Fork Valley, especially during morning and evening commuting hours.

On a recent trip to Aspen, 16 local planners and residents heard extensive presentations about what the Colorado resort city and surrounding Pitkin County are doing to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of people using the Roaring Fork valley’s state Highway 82.

Ketchum City Councilman Randy Hall explained the impetus behind the trip.

"The more I learn about other resorts and how their decisions affect their communities, the more I learn how to effectively deal with situations that might or might not arise in our community," he said. "It’s not like I went to Aspen to try to solve Ketchum’s problems. I think there’s something to be learned from all resorts in the West."

Answers to transportation problems could, in part, come from Aspen.

One answer to local transportation and commuter woes could be expanded public transportation, KART board president Pawan Mehra said following his return from the trip.

Mehra wrote in his notes from the trip that for the Wood River Valley’s transit system, KART, to be effective, "it must be countywide and must be a joint effort by Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum, Sun Valley and possibly Shoshone and Twin Falls."

Mehra modeled his conclusion on efforts Aspen and Pitkin County are undertaking to make a regional transportation system a reality.

Currently Aspen and Pitkin County help fund a bus-based transit system for workers and visitors between Aspen and communities as far away as Glenwood Springs, 40 miles down valley. The busses operate 23 hours a day.

Aspen’s bus transit system, called the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA), has witnessed a dramatic increase in riders in the past two decades. Aspen city officials attribute the increase to the difficulty of the commute on Highway 82 and to scarce parking in Aspen.

In 1983, RFTA general manager Dan Blankenship said, approximately 1 million people rode RFTA’s busses. Last year, that number jumped to close to 4 million riders, and the last two years have witnessed a 70 percent increase.

Blankenship said, however, that the demands for the busses exceed the amount of labor and funding available to RFTA. For that reason, a regional transportation governing board, with funding from all cities affected, may be the next step in Pitkin County.

Another potential solution to Aspen’s transportation woes is a light rail project. However, that effort was slowed by Aspen voters on a Nov. 2, $20 million bond initiative.

The $57-million project, part of a transportation improvement package called Entrance To Aspen (ETA), would have shuttled passengers between downtown Aspen and the Aspen airport, just under four miles away. The proposal would have allowed for future expansion to the bedroom communities of Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, which are all more than 30 miles down the Roaring Fork Valley.

According to a video that was contracted by Aspen’s public officials, the cost of a light rail system between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, a 40-mile stretch, would be $160 million. Funding would have to come from Aspen and Pitkin County through bonds, Aspen assistant city administrator Randy Ready said, as well as federal aid.

On the same Nov. 2 ballot, however, voters overwhelmingly said "yes" to an advisory question, which asked if the issue should be revisited in November of 2000.

According to Ready, the plans will likely be modified slightly, and the issue will probably go back to Aspen’s voters next fall.

Ready pointed out that the project would also need approval from county voters, which will likely be attempted next year.

Ready called this fall’s ballot a "test run."

"It gave us an idea of what people want," he said.

Another advisory question on the ballot asked voters where the destinations for the light rail system should be. Many voters said they would like the light rail to extend beyond the airport, farther down valley, Ready said. That may be included in the modified plans next fall, he said.

The conception of the light rail project stemmed from an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the Colorado Department of Transportation carried out in 1997, Ready said. And currently, another countywide EIS is being conducted to help determine what Roaring Fork Valley citizens want, Ready said. The draft EIS is expected to be released in January.

The preferred alternative based on the Colorado transportation department’s EIS, Ready said, included moderate highway improvements, such as restructured bridges and modest widening in certain sections; light rail; and better management of things that affect highway travel, such as the availability of parking in the destination end of the valley.

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Parking is another big issue in Aspen.

On a typical winter day, Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards said, all parking spaces in the city are taken.

For that reason, Aspen officials constructed a parking garage in the city to help accommodate those who commute to the valley. However, all of Aspen’s officials who gave presentations to the Wood River Valley officials said the construction of the parking garage was a mistake.

The garage is a financial loser, Aspen planning administrator Julie Ann Woods said.

In addition, the city has implemented an aggressive pay parking strategy throughout the downtown area. Special computerized parking meters, called Auto-Parq, can be hung from a vehicle’s rear view mirror and they can be prepaid.

There’s nowhere in Aspen’s downtown area someone can park without paying, Aspen officials pointed out.

Ketchum city administrator Jim Jaquet said that pay parking is something Ketchum could look into as an incentive for commuters to car pool or look to alternative forms of transportation.

Ketchum Councilman Hall said, "I don’t pretend that we have Aspen’s parking problem, but we could."

Hall also said pay parking could be a way to reduce traffic congestion in Ketchum.

 

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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.