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A bridge too far for Pitkin County commissioners

Just as Pitkin County staff have started reaching out to the public for input on a proposed multimillion-dollar hiking and biking trail, a majority of the county commissioners declared Tuesday that it would be a “hard sell” with them.

A survey went live last Friday to gauge public opinion on a proposed trail between the Brush Creek Park and Ride and the Aspen Airport Business Center. One option would place two pedestrian bridges across the Roaring Fork River and use the existing Rio Grande Trail to make the connection. Another option is a straight shot on the east side of Highway 82 for the 2.5-mile length. The straight shot would require a lengthy bridge through the Shale Bluffs section.

The costs of the options were placed at between $20 million and $28 million. The trail is being dubbed a “missing link” in the upper valley trail network. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails staff crafted a survey that asks Aspen residents, commuters and visitors if they support one of the options, see a need for one bridge or another, or don’t feel the project is worth the expense. It will be open until July 31.

However, before any input has been received, four of the five county commissioners expressed their skepticism about the project during an update from staff on Tuesday.

“I’m just warning you, you’re putting a lot of time and money and effort into this and I think you’re going to meet some opposition,” said Commissioner Francie Jacober. “It’s just a warning, like, this is going to be hard.”

The expense is troubling enough, Jacober said, but the environmental impact also is a top concern for her.

“There’s an environmental cost to building two bridges across the Roaring Fork River. That really bothers me,” Jacober said. “That’s my biggest objection to this. It’s two more bridges across the Roaring Fork for a handful of bikers.”

Commissioner Patti Clapper noted that residents of the area had concerns about the visual impact of a solar array that was installed nearby. How would they feel about two “massive” bridges installed in the beautiful Roaring Fork gorge, she asked.

Commissioner Steve Child said there are already alternative trails that can be used for recreational use. He suggested that a special bus be run between the Brush Creek lot and Aspen every 10 minutes for the benefit of commuters who want to cycle the last miles into Aspen. Cyclists would be encouraged to wheel their bikes into the bus and get off at any stop they prefer in between the two points. That option would be “a more cost-effective way” to get commuters into Aspen, Child said.

Commissioner Greg Poschman said he wants to see Pitkin County team with the Colorado Department of Transportation to remove more material sloughing from Shale Bluffs Curve to make the shoulder more viable as a commute route.

Poschman is a regular bike commuter through that stretch. He said he usually hops on Highway 82 from his house in Brush Creek Village. The Shale Bluff stretch is the only intimidating section, he said. “It’s the two minutes of terror.”

But Graeme Means, a member of the open space program’s board of directors, said the county shouldn’t be encouraging cyclists to take to the highway.

A big part of the discussion between open space staff, the open space board and county commissioners was whether the proposed trail would play a vital role beyond recreation. Will commuters use it to get into town from the Brush Creek lot in the morning and back in the afternoon?

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said there is a big national push for multimodal solutions. Once the upper valley works on a replacement of the Castle Creek Bridge, commuters will do anything to avoid sitting in stalled traffic, she said, so using bicycles to commute from the Brush Creek lot could be viable. Grants likely exist to help pay for the trail, Kury noted.

Open space board member Michael Kinsley noted the trail would only be an option during months free of snow. Given that it is a “seasonal asset,” he doubted it would be worth the expense.

“I can’t be blind to that deficiency,” he said.

Gary Tennenbaum, director of the open space program, said the expense is included in the survey questions to help people assess the value of the project. “We’re asking people about this proposed expenditure,” he said.

Tennenbaum said there will be a commuting value to the project, but he urged them not to dismiss the proposed trail’s value for recreation and connectivity.

“I’m just not sure we have a shortage of recreational opportunities in this valley,” Jacober said.

“That’s part of what we do,” Tennenbaum responded.

In addition to the survey that’s specific to the project, open space staff plan to hold meetings with focus groups and neighborhood residents during the summer. Survey results will be presented to commissioners in the fall.

But their minds appeared to be settled.

“I think the message is pretty clear that it’s pretty controversial here,” Jacober said. “I think some of the open space people and us have … it’s not an easy sell, let me put it that way.”

Tennenbaum countered that the staff isn’t trying to sell anything. It’s gauging public interest in projects.

Jessie Young, senior planner with the open space program, said general surveys conducted every other year since 2016 ask Pitkin County residents what projects or amenities they want considered. Between 70% and 85% of respondents regularly say they want the Brush Creek to AABC trail examined, she said.

Jacober extended an olive branch, or at least a twig at the end of the meeting.

“Thank you Gary. Sorry to give you such a hard time.”

Scott Condon, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer