The Pitkin County commissioners walked the site of the planned Hunter Creek-Rio Grande Trail connection with a handful of vocal opponents of the project Monday, as the future of the project remains in question.
Construction of the .3 mile, $250,000 connection between the two popular trails had been scheduled for late this summer. But objections from residents who live up Red Mountain Road have recently raised concerns about the safety of the trail crossing the road.
“We’re in limbo,” said Pitkin County’s stewardship and trails manager Gary Tennenbaum.
The main concern of opponents, three of whom spoke at the site visit, is the potential danger of an accident between drivers and pedestrians on the crossing.
“If it was an underpass you would not see me here,” said neighbor Marc Zachary. “I would love this trail if it had an underpass like the rest of the Rio Grande. ... All logic says put the trail under the road, but the budget doesn’t say that.”
City parks and open space director Stephen Ellsperman estimated that an underpass would raise the project cost above $1 million.
In what might be described as a drive-by public comment, a woman driving an SUV down Red Mountain Road rolled down her window as she sped by the crowd of officials and yelled, “Don’t put the path here!”
More than 20 people attended the visit, most of them city and county government officials. The crowd included a handful of neighbors, along with members of the city and county open space boards, and staffers from the open space, engineering and community development departments, as well as four county commissioners.
Commissioner Rachel Richards, who lives in the Hunter Creek Condominiums, recused herself from deliberations on the issue because of the proximity of her residence to the proposed trail extension.
Commissioners Jack Hatfield and Rob Ittner both raised concerns with the project during the two-hour walk.
While the crossing was the main concern of the three people who spoke against the trail, they also brought up a need for improved drainage on the stretch where the crossing would be, and which can be icy in the winter, along with a concern that the trail would take away bear, deer and elk habitat.
“I think you’ll see as much wildlife use in here as you did before,” Tennenbaum said.
The trail connection has been touted by open space officials as a convenient connection between two of Aspen’s busiest trails. It was approved by the county planning and zoning commission in public meetings and funded, in full, in exchange for extending the building rights of nearby subdivision owners. The trail extension has been publicly vetted for nearly a year.
City of Aspen trail crews are waiting for word on whether or not they will be building the trail this summer and fall, as planned. The commissioners may make a call on the trail as early as today during the open discussion portion of their scheduled meeting. County open space director Dale Will said they could still get it done this summer if they get the go-ahead.
The link would add a new footbridge across the creek near the current trailhead and, like lower sections of the existing Hunter Creek Trail, have boardwalks along wetlands.
The pedestrian crossing, as planned, would include a “speed table” using a 2-foot raised crosswalk, and signal lights to warn drivers coming from both directions that people are crossing ahead. The entrance from the trail, on both its Hunter Creek Trail and Rio Grande Trail sides, would include a landing on a 5-percent raised grade, and a stop sign for pedestrians and bikers.
Currently, the Hunter Creek Trail is accessed from a tucked-away trailhead between the Hunter Creek Condominiums and Hunter Longhouse apartments. For tourists or uninitiated locals, it’s often difficult to find.
“When I’m asked how to get to the Hunter Creek Trail, I’m caught flat-footed,” Will said.
Increasing the number of local trail connections has been a stated goal of the local government, made clear as recently as in this year’s Aspen Area Community Plan.