Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails department is capable of financing a $7.2 million project that would connect the unpaved portion of the Rio Grande trail and the Aspen Airport Business Center with a new bridge, department director Dale Will said in a meeting on Thursday.
In addition to the bridge, the project includes a new 2-mile dual surface on the Rio Grande of compressed gravel and pavement between where the trail crosses McLain Flats Road and just before the Shale Bluffs canyon.
It is one of several options that the board is considering in an effort to deal with the only 4 miles of unpaved section along the 42-mile Rio Grande Trail that stretches from Woody Creek to Stein Park in Aspen. Another option that would pave the entire stretch with a similar dual surface costs about $6.14 million.
Despite the big price tags, the department would be able to finance either project by borrowing money and finding outside partners to begin construction in 2014, Will said. Staff would also seek open space grants from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) to fund the project.
“I’m confident that we’ll be able to finance those options into 2014,” he said.
The open space fund, which is fueled by property taxes and would pay for the project, has about a $4 million balance. The fund’s charter allows the department to borrow money from other county funds that are designated for trail maintenance and construction, and those could be tapped to pay for the project, Will said. The charter also doesn’t require the department to spend all of the open space fund each year allowing money to accumulate over time to save for a project like this one, Will said. Roughly $10 million is generated annually by the open space property tax.
The board should determine which option is in the best interest of the community and not think about the project from a fiscal perspective, because the department has the financial capacity, Will said.
City parks department director Jeff Woods spoke on behalf of the city’s Open Space and Trails board and the Aspen Snowmass Nordic Council, which manages the Nordic trail system. Both groups wrote letters in support of the two options.
The city has funded multiple million-dollar projects in the past to create a trail system, Woods said. Those include Cemetery Lane’s bike path and the Tiehack pedestrian bridge, he said.
“We have a long record of building these expensive connections,” Woods said. “Without them you don’t have a trail system. ... It’s going to be expensive regardless of what you do.”
Board member Anne Rickenbaugh said she wanted to be sure county staff did everything possible to get feedback from the community regarding the project before moving forward, because of its high price tag.
“There’s going to be a huge hullabaloo over this,” Rickenbaugh said. “ ... When we first looked into paving the Rio Grande I don’t think anybody was prepared for the numbers we got back.”
Will said that county staff began the process by conducting one of the most intensive public outreach efforts the department has ever undergone.
“I don’t lightly suggest that we spend the kind of dollars that [these options cost] on a bike trail,” Will said.
Rickenbaugh said she appreciates that staff has put forward the effort it has, but there are still people in the community who don’t know the project exists at all, she said.
Board member Tim McFlynn suggested that staff offer free alcoholic refreshments at the upcoming open house the department is hosting. The booze might be an incentive to get the public to attend, he said.
Board member Howie Mallory agreed with McFlynn’s suggestion and said they should try everything to get public feedback on the project.
“I think there’s a lot of concern that there’s building going on everywhere,” Mallory said. “I think it’s important to listen to the public who is paying the bills.”
The open house will take place on Nov. 28 at the Aspen Colorado Mountain College campus’ art gallery and the board is scheduled to discuss the project with Pitkin County commissioners at the next joint meeting.