Aspen arguing again about rail transportation

Brief by Allen Best

Transportation – January 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

Will it be a leap forward to the past in mountain valleys of the West? The “past” in this case is rail-based transportation.

For years, some people have been arguing that train systems similar to those we abandoned decades ago are the answer to growing traffic demands, and the debate is on in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley.

Trains from Glenwood Springs stopped running to Aspen in the 1950s, but a consortium of government agencies purchased the right-of-way in the 1990s, thinking to create rail transportation. They later rejected trains as too expensive — at least for the time being. In the meantime, the right-of-way is being paved as a bike path.

Meanwhile, in line with its no- and slow-growth mentality, Aspen resisted four-laning Highway 82. A freeway is now in place, and so is a bus system, Roaring Fork Transit Authority, which is one of the busiest and best in the rural West. But the entrance to Aspen is, during mornings and evenings, as congested as the highway leading into any major city in the West. On several occasions, the city and valley have debated whether to invade dedicated open space to create more lanes of traffic.

Aspen should look to the cities of the West for answers to its transportation troubles, says Jim Markalunas, a resident of Aspen since before it was a ski resort. “If we are really serious about a viable alternative to the automobile, we need to look no farther than Denver or Salt Lake, where light rail provides reliable and fast transportation in all weather conditions,” he wrote in a letter published in The Aspen Times.

Seconding that sentiment is Monique Krueger, “The West was won by and with the railroad, and everything you love about it will be lost without it,” she writes.

Meanwhile, Aspen remains interested in piggybacking onto efforts to create a rail-based network for passengers in Colorado. This so-called commuter rail has already gone on-line in the Albuquerque area, with plans for expansion to Santa Fe. Another commuter rail line is being implemented along the Wasatch Front of Utah, eventually to connect Provo with Ogden.

Metropolitan Denver’s $4.7 billion transportation plan contains elements of commuter rail, in addition to spokes of light rail radiating from the downtown area. But rail boosters are pushing hard — with some encouragement from the federal government — to create first a commuter line along the Front Range, ultimately connecting Cheyenne to Denver to Albuquerque, parallel to I-25. A second phase foresees a rail system along the I-70 corridor from Denver to Grand Junction, with lateral systems — including a line from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.

The booster group, the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, which is led by Bob Briggs, a former Republican legislator from suburban Denver, has landed a grant to study the feasibility of passenger rail along the two interstate highways.

The group hopes to go before Colorado voters in 2008.