The Big Picture

 

It was 1970 when an Aspen City Council first asked the State of Colorado to hold off on the expansion of Highway 82 at the entrance to town while they studied mass transit alternatives.  Since that time, more often than not, highway improvements and mass transit systems have been pitted against each other like rivals for the public’s affection.  This obviously makes no sense.

There is no inconsistency or contradiction in favoring both increased highway capacity and mass transit services.

There is a committed minority of Aspen residents who are either against the idea of expanding highways on principle, in the apparent belief that increased highway capacity causes increased automobile use, or are opposed to the specific expansion of Highway 82 because of negative impacts to their, or the public’s, property.

The first category of opponents to the four-laning of Highway 82 is relying on one small element of a concept broadly described as “induced travel”, and belief in this theory among local elected officials has been quite strong at various times over the last few decades.

The induced travel idea has been widely discussed at the national level, and studied in depth.  The idea that induced vehicular traffic is attributable to increased highway capacity has been almost universally discounted, both because of its small impact on overall traffic volume, and the inability to disaggregate the phenomenon from more compelling travel inducements such as the ability to access cheaper housing or better jobs.  For those inclined to research such policy discussions in detail, you may be interested in reading a meta-study (a study of available studies on a particular subject) on the subject of induced travel.

Regardless of its minor importance, the capacity induced traffic argument is particularly inapplicable to the Entrance to Aspen debate.  The induced traffic which was calculated to result from the widening of Highway 82 between Basalt and Aspen has already been accounted for, and dealt with, in the Environmental Impact Statement for the project, and during local transportation planning.  Funding for increased downvalley bus service approved by voters in 1993, along with the construction of intercept parking lots and the designation of HOV lanes, were all intended to neutralize any increase in traffic volume which might result from the four-laning of the highway.

Just as highway expansion itself does not significantly increase traffic volume, mass transit services do not substantially reduce traffic congestion.  For a definitive study on this subject, witness the 37 year long experiment which has been conducted at the Entrance to Aspen.  First the city’s, then the county’s, and finally the region’s consistent expansion of mass transit over nearly four decades has provided less benefit to the congestion problem than if there had been a new highway built - and no bus system.

Although the relative merits and advantages of rail versus bus mass transit systems is a continuing and entirely separate subject, it should be noted that from the earliest stages of planning for the expansion of Highway 82 in the upper valley, it was intended that the new highway corridor would provide the future opportunity to add a light rail component.  The width of the easement acquired, and the design of major infrastructure improvements such as bridges and pedestrian underpasses, were all intended to be sufficient to someday accommodate rail in addition to the expanded highway.

Consequently, there is absolutely no reason construction of a four lane highway through the Marolt property, managed exactly like the lanes currently in place between Basalt and Buttermilk, with or without a cut and cover tunnel, should be opposed by anyone who considers themselves to be an advocate for mass transit.

Those citizens who object to an alignment using property originally acquired for open space should appreciate the extent to which their concerns were addressed during the planning for the highway.  Abandoning the old Highway 82 alignment between Cemetery Lane and the Maroon Creek intersection restores a good chunk of land, as does the cut and cover tunnel - should the public choose that option.

When entering town today, there is open space to the right, and a golf course, which most people regard as open space, on the left.  When entering town after the new entrance is built, there will be open space on the right, and open space and a golf course on the left.  Simply moving the alignment does no more to “cut through” the open space than the existing highway.  The relatively few acres actually lost are difficult to understand as a “deal killer” issue in the context of the thousands of square miles of open space which surround Aspen.

It is unfortunate that in the course of building a positive community asset, individual property owners will experience a serious negative impact, potentially on both their living conditions and their property values.  It is particularly difficult in the context of state law which, although it compensates a landowner for property actually taken for construction, does not compensate for the full value of lost property value.  For example, it is possible that an owner could receive payment for the twenty percent of their land taken, and receive nothing further for a forty percent loss in value caused by the proximity of the new highway.

The city housing program has the ability to perform a “buy-down”, which essentially means taking a loss on an existing developed property in order to bring it within the price range of a qualified buyer.  The City of Aspen should offer to acquire, at current market value, the property of the eight landowners identified as being negatively impacted by the new highway.  That property should then either be further developed for affordable housing, or resold under Resident Occupied guidelines, with the difference in price made up from the housing fund.

Whether they originate from a lack of knowledge, symbolic protest, or simple self interest, the arguments against improving the Entrance to Aspen do not seem to be logically grounded.  It certainly does nothing for the environment to have vehicles sit and idle, and the visual blight of a traffic jam is not consistent with the stated desire to preserve a “small town” image for Aspen.

The evidence does not support the idea that wider roads create significantly increased traffic volume, or that mass transit can be a substitute for matching highway capacity with traffic volume in order to relieve congested conditions.

In some cases, fighting the new entrance may just be force of habit.       

             

 

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