The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board agreed on Thursday to support a $290,000 engineering study that would determine whether a bridge should be built connecting the Rio Grande Trail and the Airport Business Center.
The project, known as “option 4,” is one of several ideas that the board is considering in an effort to link the only 4 miles of unpaved section along the 42-mile Rio Grande Trail. The unpaved section stretches from Woody Creek to Stein Park in Aspen.
Option 4 is estimated to cost about $6.2 million and includes a new 2-mile dual surface of compressed gravel and pavement on the Rio Grande between where the trail crosses McLain Flats Road and just before Shale Bluffs canyon. The price tag could change, however, based on the engineering study.
Another proposal, called “option 3B,” would pave the entire stretch with the same dual surface. It would cost about $6.1 million, of which about $1.3 million would be spent on installing guard rails for safety.
Scoping conducted by the open space staff over the past year indicates that the majority of the public wants to see a hard surface trail connection between Aspen and W/J Ranch, which is adjacent to McLain Flats. Those surveyed prefer option 4 over 3B, according to open space officials.
Open space board members agreed that it is worth investing time and money into performing the study to determine the actual cost of building the bridge before a final decision is made. Currently, it’s estimated to cost $2.5 million.
Board member Tai Jacober argued in favor of option 4 because it can be worked on in phases, he said. The county can begin paving the portion of the trail that both option 4 and 3B include while the engineering study is done, he said.
“The last link would be the bridge, which I think is the largest part of option 4,” Jacober said.
If the engineering study discovers that the bridge will cost significantly more than originally estimated, county staff will have time to reevaluate and possibly just pave the entire path through the canyon at not much more of a cost than what the preferred alternative is, he said.
Board member Hawk Greenway said putting a hard surface on the entire 4-mile stretch and installing guard rails would be like paving paradise to put in a parking lot, quoting the lyrics of the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.
“I couldn’t get past the guard rails,” Greenway said. “I couldn’t get past the urbanization thing. We don’t need to do that.”
Board member Tim McFlynn added to Greenway’s comments, noting that most of the public feedback received on the project echoes another lyric in Mitchell’s song that says people don’t realize what they have until it’s gone. Most comments from the public — which number into the hundreds — emphasized the need to preserve the natural element of the trail.
Meanwhile, board member Howie Mallory questioned how much of a paradise would be saved by paving the 4-mile stretch. The section of the trail runs by the airport and sewage plant, he noted.
“I personally don’t think it’s a particularly bucolic place,” he said. “... I’m personally not uncomfortable with a hard surface going through there.”
Mallory didn’t like the idea of encouraging cyclists to cross the bridge in order to use paved trails adjacent to Highway 82, he said. Still, he was open to working on option 4 in phases because it would allow the county to manage the project based on its impacts and public reaction to it, Mallory said.
Dale Will, county open space and trails director, also was in favor of moving forward with the engineering study.
“I think that from what I know, it’s a good point if we do this engineering work,” Will said. “It’s going to be expensive but if it informs us of something that we don’t know, it will be important.”
The open space board will continue discussions on the project at a meeting on Jan. 24 when it will decide on a formal recommendation to give to the Pitkin County commissioners next month. The recommendation will include the board’s endorsement of performing the engineering study.