The city of Aspen wants a better method for figuring out the traffic and transportation impacts of new development, and is considering paying a Denver firm $100,000 to come up with a local evaluation model.
Too often, according to the city, how many car trips a proposed new development would generate and how those impacts should be offset is debated in subjective negotiations in the land-use approval process.
That could change if the city hires Fehr & Peers for a two-phase process that would begin with studying local traffic patterns, and establishing a formula for how many car trips different kinds of development generate in Aspen.
Aspen City Council discussed the proposed contract at Monday’s meeting, and will hear a presentation from Fehr & Peers representatives next Monday before presumably deciding whether to go forward with the project.
People are always guessing how much traffic a new hotel or monster home would create, said Mayor Mick Ireland, and established national formulas based on a cross-section of large urban areas don’t reflect the circumstances of Aspen.
“The models are based on normal people and we don’t have many of those here,” Ireland said at the meeting.
The typical model estimates that a new home will generate seven car trips per day, Ireland said.
“But in Aspen, it would be seven FedEx trips per day and, you know, food and dinner and summonses and all the things you get delivered here,” Ireland quipped.
After establishing Aspen’s formula, the second phase of the Fehr & Peers study would create a matrix that scores the efficacy of various traffic offsets, like car-share programs, bike racks or distributing bus passes.
“[The study] is an important step in making sure the development review process is predictable,” Aspen long-range planner Jessica Garrow said. “It’s a really haphazard process right now and that doesn’t work for anyone.”
The idea of creating a clearer process for studying and mitigating traffic impacts came out of the Aspen Area Community Plan, which council adopted early this year.
Councilman Derek Johnson said he is generally supportive of the concept, but he questioned what the city would actually be getting for $100,000. He also said he was skeptical that creating a new evaluation process would serve to reduce traffic in town, which is the ultimate goal.
Johnson called for holding off on voting on the contract in lieu of bringing Fehr & Peers up to Aspen for next week’s sit-down. The rest of council agreed with his suggestion.
Councilman Adam Frisch also expressed skepticism, saying that he thought traffic counts reveal more about the overall health of the economy as opposed to providing the city with information on how well its “transportation demand management programs” (as they are known to city planners) are working.
Frisch wondered whether the $100,000 effort was simply an attempt to give the city legal backing to enforce more regulations on the business and development community.
Responding to Frisch’s comments, Councilman Steve Skadron said he felt his fellow elected official was engaging in government bashing.
“I appreciate your critical eye,” Skadron said. “[But] there’s an air of negativity to it. Your comments make me feel guilty to a certain degree about actions that this council and this community have taken prior to your involvement here.”
Skadron defended city regulations — often criticized by developers — on traffic control, affordable housing and other areas. Town doesn’t seem to be suffering because of them, he said.
“While it’s a burden and I’m sensitive to that, it doesn’t appear to be strangling our local economy,” Skadron said. “There’s a tremendous demand to be in this town, in my opinion, because of the actions we’ve taken and not in spite of them.”
Frisch conceded that overall, city growth management, housing and traffic policies have made town more desirable. But he said council needs to be sensitive to the message it is putting out to the community.
“I have a frustration that we spend a lot of time focusing on the negative externalities of a new movie theater or a new restaurant in town,” Frisch said. “... Every time I hear the word mitigation ... I miss the point about, hey, thank you for opening up a store here and being able to employ some people.”
Skadron apologized for putting Frisch on the spot and thanked him for the open dialogue.
In regards to the study serving as a basis for a legal defense of traffic offsetting measures that could become a required part of the development review process, Garrow said that one of the reasons Fehr & Peers was chosen was because similar work it has done in other towns — mostly in California — has held up under court challenges.
Said City Attorney Jim True, “The more objective data you have, the better off those mitigation programs are.”