After over an hour of heated debate, the Elected Officials Transportation Committee (EOTC) voted on Thursday to move forward with a project to build a new pedestrian underpass that will link the Aspen Airport Business Center (AABC) with the airport despite it costing $2 million more than original estimates.
Earlier this week, county engineers announced that the project’s estimated cost is now $5.4 million, after they received bids from construction firms. In November, the project was expected to cost about $3 million, of which the county committed to paying $500,000. The EOTC, which is made up of elected officials from the city of Aspen, Snowmass Village and the county, agreed to contribute $1 million and the rest was going to come from a Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) FASTER grant.
In Thursday’s meeting, the EOTC agreed to fund $1.025 million of the shortfall from its $3 million capital fund, while the rest will be paid for by the county’s capital reserve fund. Pitkin County commissioners approved the extra funding for the project in a meeting on Tuesday.
The underpass was proposed to create a safer pedestrian crossing of Highway 82 at the AABC. Currently, 32 percent of the 250 people who walk across the highway daily opt to cross in front of the bus stop instead of going to the stop light and crosswalk, according to a 2012 traffic study. Meanwhile, 22,000 vehicles drive past the crosswalk a day.
Although 10 of 11 elected officials at the meeting voted in favor of the extra funding, Aspen and Snowmass elected officials questioned whether it was fiscally responsible to do so.
Snowmass Mayor Bill Boineau asked the board to consider when a project is too expensive and not worth the investment. He would have voted against the project originally if he had known it was going to be this expensive, Boineau said.
City Councilman Steve Skadron said that the board is essentially being asked to move forward with the underpass at any cost when it won’t necessarily ensure that street crossers won’t go rogue and walk across the highway despite being provided with a safer alternative. Financially, the project appears to be a black hole, he said.
“I’m afraid of this project,” Skadron said.
County Manager Jon Peacock explained that the shortfall was due to mistakes made by the Parsons Transportation Group, which designed the underpass and made the original estimates, and the county’s inexperience in building underpasses. County engineers typically would catch costs that a designer failed to include in their estimates on bridge or road projects, which the county builds regularly. That didn’t happen this time, because the county simply hasn’t built an underpass in a long time, Peacock said.
“This is an unusual project for us to take on,” Peacock said. “We relied very much on the expertise of Parsons.”
Now that the bids are in, however, there will likely be fewer unexpected costs, Peacock said. There is a $500,000 contingency included in the bids if overruns do occur, he added.
Snowmass Town Council member Markey Butler said that the issue boiled down to whether it is worth $5.4 million to possibly deter injury or death by building an underpass.
Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, gave an emotional speech arguing in favor of investing in the underpass. The board is considering the impacts of an underpass in an abstract sense, Blankenship said. He has received calls from family members after their loved ones have been injured or killed after being struck by vehicles, he said.
“I don’t like getting those calls,” Blankenship said. “It’s traumatic for our staff and everybody involved in the aftermath. It’s a big deal.”
County commissioners George Newman and Michael Owsley both called for collaboration on the project.
Newman noted that the municipalities were not being asked to donate money to the project and the county was contributing its own funds, because the commissioners consider it a priority.
Owsley argued that everyone will benefit from the underpass.
“I think we really have to think of the whole,” Owsley said. “If we don’t we start to diminish the quality of life in this community, which we’ve all worked very hard for.”
Prior to taking a final vote Boineau asked the county commissioners to keep in mind that in the end Snowmass officials supported the county-driven underpass project. Boineau hopes that the county will express the same kind of consideration for the town as it works with the USA Pro Challenge to plan this year’s bike race route. The county has previously expressed disapproval of proposed race routes to Snowmass, because they would shut down streets into Aspen. The race brings money into the town and is important to Snowmass’ economy, Boineau said. That’s why the county needs to work together with the municipality to make it happen, he said.