Rio Grande Trail connection gets more public scrutiny
The cost estimate has dropped by $1 million for a project that includes a bridge across the Roaring Fork River gorge connecting the Rio Grande Trail with the Airport Business Center.
That’s because an underpass at Baltic Avenue, the main road that leads into the ABC, has been taken off the table. The underpass was to be a part of a new trail system in the area, but it will be treated as a separate project in the future, said Dale Will, county open space and trails director.
The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board is considering a plan known as “option 4” that would create a paved trail system into Aspen from the Rio Grande Trail. The new estimate is $6.2 million.
The plan was one of several options considered in the context of how to deal with the only four miles of unpaved section along the 42-mile Rio Grande Trail. The unpaved trail stretches from Woody Creek to Stein Park in Aspen.
The project includes a two-mile dual surface section on the Rio Grande of compressed gravel and pavement between where the trail crosses McLain Flats Road and just before the Shale Bluffs canyon. At that point, the trail would remain a gravel surface through the narrowest portion of the corridor to Stein Park, as it exists today.
By building a bridge that connects to the city of Aspen’s paved trail system that runs along Highway 82, two miles of the Rio Grande can remain unpaved, which many users have said they would prefer. The project would create a hard surface route all the way into town, since users of the newly paved trail could take the new bridge and connect with the city trail.
Option 3B, which would create a dual surface on the entire four-mile stretch between Woody Creek and Stein Park, has roughly the same cost as the recommended bridge project — $6.1 million.
“It’s a poetic coincidence that the cost is about the same,” Will said of the two options. “It’s not a fiscal choice, it’s an aesthetic choice.”
Option 3B is about the same amount because the area directly across from the Shale Bluffs canyon on the existing Rio Grande has massive drainage issues and is often muddy or icy with shifting, loose shale that creates a thick goo on the trail, Will said. And because of the steep drop-off in that section, a railing would be needed, especially if it was to be paved, because open space officials anticipate that bicyclists would go faster.
The big question is whether the community wants a bridge spanning across the gorge to connect with an existing paved trail system into town. It would be similar to the Tiehack bridge over the Maroon Creek gorge.
Based on months of public outreach and surveys, that is the preferred and recommended option by open space staff. The open space and trails department held a third open house on the proposal last Wednesday when about 45 people attended, Will said.
Open space board members have said that they are concerned that despite the efforts of the county to educate the public about the project, when it comes time for approval by elected officials, people may object because of the cost and say they have never heard of it.
Board member Anne Rickenbaugh said during a Nov. 15 meeting that 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,” she said. “... When we first looked into paving the Rio Grande I don’t think anybody was prepared for the numbers we got back.”
Will has acknowledged that it’s been one of the most extensive public outreach efforts the open space and trails program has ever embarked on.
“We have succeeded in elevating the [level] of community engagement,” he said, adding people who know about the proposal appreciate the difficult decision facing county commissioners, who have ultimate approval authority on the project. “We are trying to get everyone to take this process seriously.”
To date, there have been three open houses; meetings with user groups and community members; ads and inserts about the project placed in both local newspapers; social media postings; a movie aired on community television; a website created specifically to host project information; an online survey on various options; and public service announcements on local radio stations, among other efforts.
“We want to facilitate the best decision-making process possible,” Will said. “We have to figure out what the community wants.”
Open space board trustees will likely meet before their scheduled joint session with county commissioners on Dec. 18 for what Will described as an informal discussion on the proposal.
If the open space board makes a recommendation to approve the bridge option, a final decision by the commissioners could be made possibly in the first quarter of 2013. If it gets the go-ahead, engineering and planning will consume most of next year and an application will be made to Great Outdoors Colorado for a grant to pay for a portion of the costs. Officials also would seek other financial contributions and partnerships.
Will has noted in the past that the current proposal would be the largest trail project the open space program has ever contemplated, and comprehensive planning for it is crucial.
“I’m hoping we know what we are doing by March,” he said. “Although this is a tough decision, procrastinating the decision doesn’t help.”
Log onto to www.pitkincountyrgt.org  for more details of the various alternatives and the current proposal.