Make way for Segways on the Rio Grande Trail

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Electric-powered vehicles such as Segways that weigh up to 150 pounds and go 20 miles per hour are now allowed on the Rio Grande Trail for people with disabilities, according to new transit rules approved Thursday.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board of directors had no choice but to allow the vehicles because of new Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, said Walter Mathews, the agency’s general counsel.

The new federal rules, which fall under the purvey of the U.S. Department of Justice, took effect in March.

Both board members and staff, as well as numerous organizations responsible for maintaining recreational trails, “are quite concerned that the new DOJ [Department of Justice] regulations are too broad in terms of the types of mobility devices allowed,” says a memo to the board.

Staff from RFTA and Pitkin County Open Space and Trails scrambled to complete an ADA assessment of the popular Rio Grande pathway. It involved assessing factors about whether a particular mobility device is allowed in or on a facility as a reasonable accommodation. A device’s type, size, weight, dimensions and speed were considered, as were:

• the volume of pedestrian traffic;

• the facility’s design and operation characteristics;

• whether legitimate safety requirements can be established to permit the safe operation of the other power-driven mobility device in or on the specific facility;

• whether the use of the other power-driven mobility device (OPDMD) creates a substantial risk of serious harm to the immediate environment or natural or cultural resources, or poses a conflict with federal land management laws and regulations.

The urgency was necessary to prevent ATVs or automobiles, which could be claimed as one’s OPDMD of choice, from being driven on the trail.

The assessment rules limit the vehicles to a maximum of 150 pounds, excluding the user’s weight, and not to exceed 20 mph (a Segway typically weighs about 100 pounds and tops out at 13 mph). All such vehicles must be electric-powered and must be capable of turning around on the trail “so as not to endanger the OPDMD operator or other trail users, or to cause damage to the trail ... in any fashion,” the new local rules say.

They also say the vehicles can be no wider than 32 inches and must operate at a safe speed.

“Where other users are present, a safe speed for an OPDMD is deemed to be the average speed” of other trail users, according to the rules.

The rules also cover how RFTA staff are to go about the awkward chore of ensuring that someone using a device truly is disabled.

RFTA trail employees are not allowed to ask about “the nature and extent of the person’s disability” but can ask a person using such a device “to provide credible assurance that the OPDMD is required because of the person’s disability.”

The person can provide a disability parking placard or card, or other state-issued proof of disability as credible assurance. But if neither are provided, RFTA staff must accept “a verbal representation, not contradicted by observable fact, that the OPDMD is being used for a mobility disability,” the rules say.

John Wilkinson, a RFTA board member and Snowmass Village town councilman, said displaying a disability placard or the like is important because it lets “other users know they’re not out there joy-riding” on the trail.

The board was told that Pitkin County is considering a permit system in which someone wanting to use an electric vehicle for the trail would apply and show a doctor’s note about the disability. The rules do not cover electric bicycles, an issue RFTA is to take up at a later date.

A woman who said multiple sclerosis attacked her legs thanked board members from her Segway for allowing the devices on the Rio Grande Trail. She said she enjoys being on the trail as her children ride bikes.

RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said the goal now is to find commonality between different jurisdictions. The board unanimously approved the rules in the assessment.