Looking towards Aspen from Red Butte, circa 1900. Aspen Historical Society, Cooper Collection
Ahh September…the crisp air, the warm sun, the glorious colors, the TRAFFIC. Wait, wait…traffic? That’s not what September is about? But alas, yes, the dreaded Castle Creek Bridge detour traffic is once again disturbing my tranquil off season. The annoyance! I’m trying to channel my frustrations Edward Holden’s way, again, but to little avail. This time around, I can’t help but think it’s not just Mr. Holden that has ruined my tranquil fall months…really, it’s all of you and the failures of democracy!! Generations of Aspenites and Pitkin Countians who have voted and re-voted on the Entrance to Aspen a whopping TWENTY SIX TIMES in just four decades. Why can’t you agree? To find the answer and calm down from this traffic-induced rage, I dug into myself with the help of the knowledgeable AHS archive techs, to try to understand the votes and what is the darn problem here?
As I discovered doing similar research this spring, the location of the entrance to Aspen is Mr. Holden’s fault. But the original bridge over Castle Creek was built in 1891. Yeah, that’s almost 130 years ago! So what’s happened since then to leave us with the now legendary controversial Aspen “S curve?” Highway 82 was officially incorporated into the state highway system in 1911. It was paved to Aspen by 1938. The original bridge was replaced in 1961. And then came the votes. Buckle your seat belts folks, this might take awhile:
The first vote on the Entrance to Aspen was in 1975 on a City of Aspen ballot. It asked whether to secure federal funding for a partnership with Pitkin County to build a light rail system. It passed.
The second vote in 1982, another City of Aspen ballot question, asked about converting open land to expand Highway 82 into a two- or four-lane highway with a straight shot to 7th and Main according to the City Council’s purview. It failed.
The third and fourth votes were 1983 Pitkin County questions, asking for a sales tax increase and a $1.8 million bond for public transportation services and facilities for Pitkin County. Both passed.
The fifth and sixth votes were City of Aspen question in August of 1986, asking if Council was authorized to build a 4-lane highway over existing open space to connect at 7th and Main, with various caveats. Both failed.
The seventh vote in November of 1986 was City of Aspen and asked about converting land into a train terminal that would affect the Rio Grande Trail. It passed.
The eighth and ninth votes in February of 1990 were City of Aspen asking again about the 4-lane highway with two options for alignment – over open space to 7th and Main or along the existing alignment, that passed and the ninth vote asked which alignment was preferred, the straight shot to 7th and Main prevailed.
The tenth and eleventh votes in 1994 were Pitkin County. 2C asked if Aspen City Council should be authorized to convert the land, including open space, to build the highway. It failed (by 53 votes). 2D was conditional on 2C passing (it didn’t) but asked about realigning highway 82 if a survey identified the new route as preferred.
The twelfth vote in 1996 was back to City of Aspen, asking for authorization to convert the open space land for a 2-lane parkway and light rail corridor, with strict conditions. It passed.
The thirteenth vote in August of 1998 was City of Aspen, asking if the City should adopt a ¼-penny sales tax for a parking garage at Rio Grande Place, and issue a $6.5 million, 20-year bond. It passed overwhelmingly.
The fourteenth vote came in November of 1998 was Pitkin County asking about financing timing: if all financing is not approved through public votes by the City of Aspen or Pitkin County before November 1999, shall Pitkin County stop spending funds on rail studies until the expansion of 82 between Basalt and Aspen is completed? It passed.
The fifteenth and sixteenth votes were also November of 1998, from both City of Aspen and Pitkin County, asking if citizens supported the concept of a valley wide rail system linking Glenwood and Aspen. The City of Aspen question passed, the Pitkin County question failed.
The seventeenth vote the following year (1999) was City of Aspen, asking for a $20 million bond to construct the light rail system, with strict conditions. It failed.
The eighteenth vote, happening the same year on the City of Aspen ballot, asked if the City should bond for $16 million for an exclusive bus way from Buttermilk to 7th and Main with conditions. This approval would have allowed the City to convey right of way for the bus corridor. It failed.
The nineteenth vote was also 1999 on the same City of Aspen ballot but was a non-binding question. It outlined population growth and asked what limits on travel citizens preferred? Limiting to the current level failed. Limit to 2% growth failed, as did 4% growth and unlimited growth.
The twentieth vote, also a non-binding question on the same City of Aspen ballot, passed and directed City Council to work with other valley governments to develop a transit plan comparing bus-only with a bus-to-rail concept for a bonding vote no later than November 2000.
The twenty-first vote, also 1999 City of Aspen, asked about parking options. A garage proposed at Wagner or Paepcke park failed. Increased neighborhood parking failed overwhelmingly. The option for valley-wide transit system including park n rides throughout the valley with no increase to in-town parking passed.
The twenty-second vote was a Pitkin County question in 2000 asking to establish the Regional Transit Authority, with Pitkin County contributing .7215% of existing 1.5% transportation sales tax annually. It passed.
In the twenty-third vote that same year Pitkin County asked if it should bond $10.2 million to 1. realign Highway 82 to 7th and Main with bridges and a tunnel; 2. $7million for Snowmass Village transit; 3. $1.5 million for bus stops in Pitkin County; 4. $7.5 million for new buses, maintenance facility and affordable housing for RFTA. It passed.
The twenty-fourth vote in 2001 was City of Aspen asking again if Council should be authorized to convert the open space land for a 2-lane high way, but this time with exclusive bus lanes until the community supports rail funding, with conditions. It failed.
The twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth votes in 2002 were both City of Aspen and Pitkin County asking which voters preferred, S-curves or a modified direct route? S-curves won both.
Whew, that was exhausting, but those are the votes! Can you even believe the varying decisions, from City to County and year-to-year? Oh there was also a 1999 lawsuit opposing the realignment that went all the way to Federal Court of Appeals and then the Federal Highway Administration, who ruled that the Entrance to Aspen Final Environmental Impact Statement of 1997 had to be reevaluated before any alternative could move forward. This reevaluation was completed in November of 2006, but the federal court has yet to resolve the appeal case without a local vote for approval and funding.
Ten years later in 2016, the Aspen City Council, Pitkin Board of County Commissioners and the Snowmass Village Town Council voted to spend nearly $500,000 to study how much it would cost to build light rail across Marolt versus building dedicated bus lanes across the open space. That apparently went by the wayside, but the angst-ridden conversations on the issue continue, and now we have the $2.6 million Mobility Lab…but we also still have the “S curves!” I’m amazed by the history of this issue, but the time is running out on the question. Despite the repairs causing my headaches this year, CDOT recommends the Castle Creek bridge will have to be replaced in its entirety in just twenty years. And CDOT can do just about anything they want, including condemn the open space land for a new alignment when it comes to replacing the bridge. So are these past 40 years of working through this issue in vain? Only time, and likely more votes, will tell.
My head hurts slightly more than when I started this research, but luckily there’s a lull in the traffic outside, so I’m off to take a nap. But I’ll leave you with one final thought. That annoying detour traffic, you have no one to blame it on but yourselves!
Until next time,
The “Eye of the Archive” blog post series, authored by A.B. (personified AHS Archive Building), offers an insider’s glimpse into the goings-on at Aspen Historical Society. Tune in for posts about the Collection, restoration projects, exhibit tid-bits, news around town, and more.