The Glenwood Springs City Council cast what could end up becoming a $6 million vote concerning the city’s long-sought-after South Bridge project earlier this week.
South Bridge would provide a critical second access point from the west side of the Roaring Fork River — where thousands of Glenwood Springs residents reside — to Highway 82, particularly in the event of an emergency.
The city already has $20 million earmarked in bonding capacity from its acquisitions and improvements fund for the major infrastructure project, in addition to $4 million from the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s successful Destination 2040 property tax measure.
The city has also applied for a $31 million FEMA Building Resistant Infrastructure and Communities Grant (BRIC).
South Bridge carries with it a price tag in excess of $50 million, and its design overlaps with the city’s airport. Councilors on Thursday night had to decide whether or not the bridge should tunnel beneath the airport’s runway. Although the tunnel option would likely preserve the city’s airport, it would increase the project’s cost from $50.7 million to approximately $56.7 million.
“The tunnel is very expensive — I realize that, and I am not proposing through this motion that we pay for the tunnel out of the city coffers,” Mayor Pro Tem Shelley Kaup said during Thursday’s Glenwood Springs City Council meeting. “We can go after partnership funding … through Garfield County, through grants and we also expect [the Colorado Department of Transportation] and RFTA funding. If we do not get that funding, then I would propose that we put that question to the voters: Do we spend $6 million … to put that tunnel under the airport and keep the airport open?”
Kaup believed alternative options, such as shortening the airport’s runway, were “speculative at best” and questioned whether they were even feasible if the city planned to keep the airport open.
“I think it’s the best route for the city,” Kaup said of constructing South Bridge to tunnel beneath the airport runway.
Kaup, who is running for reelection this April against Native Son Restaurant and Bar owner Ricky Rodriguez, was quick to make Thursday’s motion supporting the tunnel option.
“I don’t want to destroy the airport to save it,” Councilor Tony Hershey said.
No stranger to controversial issues, Hershey, who previously served on the Aspen City Council, said he had never received so much feedback on a city issue since Glenwood’s South Bridge project.
“I think by cutting the runway you’re … depriving the airport of its functionality, and if we want to close the airport that’s a vote for another day, but I can’t support that. I think it’s a unique asset and I am going to support this,” Hershey said.
Hershey also agreed with Kaup that should additional funding not come through, the voters should ultimately decide whether or not the city should foot the $6 million dollar bill to construct the tunnel, which would also effectively keep the airport open.
“Six million dollars, to me, it’s not a bridge too far; it’s a tunnel too far,” Hershey said.
Councilor Charlie Willman was skeptical that the Glenwood Springs Airport produced as much economic activity as many of the facility’s supporters have repeatedly suggested. As an elected official, Willman said he had a “fiduciary duty” to the citizens of Glenwood to properly manage the city’s funds.
“The economic impact is $10,300 in sales and property taxes — that’s all. There is no other economic impact,” Willman said of the Glenwood Springs Airport, citing a study conducted by Gruen Gruen + Associates and paid for by the city. “Visitors coming [to] Glenwood Springs in small planes that can land at the airport I don’t believe generate significant revenue in any way. I haven’t seen any data to support that.”
Willman asserted that the community at large believed South Bridge would serve as a critical evacuation route for residents and was concerned that the airport itself only served the few that could actually fly into it.