Pitkin County is expected to swell above 50,000 inhabitants during the upcoming Christmas-to-New Year’s holiday period.
That figure, provided by one expert during an airport-planning meeting earlier this year, basically triples the county’s year-round population. County Commissioner George Newman made note of the increase on Wednesday when he said, “We’re getting into the crazy season.”
Speaking at the Board of County Commissioners’ regular meeting, Newman and others urged locals and visitors alike to be more careful and considerate while driving, walking, skiing and celebrating during the busy days that lie ahead — and to use public transportation whenever possible.
A member of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s board of directors, Newman pointed out that upvalley traffic was backed up all the way to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport around 10 a.m. Wednesday. Leaving Aspen on the bus Tuesday, he said it took about 30 minutes to get out of town as Main Street traffic was backed up to the Hotel Jerome.
“It’s a little bit crazy,” Newman reiterated. “Coming into the holiday season, we need [people to be] patient and enjoy being here in Aspen.”
He suggested that everyone make better use of public-transportation alternatives such as RFTA, which recently added eight new electric buses to its local fleet as part of an initiative to lower the area’s greenhouse gas emissions. RFTA use within Aspen’s city limits is free, and service between Snowmass Village and Aspen, as well as the Brush Creek Park and Ride and Aspen, also is provided at no cost. (Check out rfta.com for local and downvalley schedules.)
The city of Aspen also has a contracted shuttle service that operates primarily within the commercial core and uses electric vehicles called the Downtowner. It operates between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. daily; would-be users first need to download the Downtowner application to their smartphones in order to access a free ride.
“I know that some people have to utilize a car to get in and out of town but there’s many who don’t,” Newman said. “Certainly most of our guests do not need cars. …I would just encourage everyone to think about maintaining our climate here, our clean air and nice skies, to try to reduce our carbon footprint.”
Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury noted that she worked for many years in the service industry and asked visitors to be considerate when interacting with the local workforce.
She called the upcoming two-week period “a time of year when not everybody gets to spend time with their families, as they are working seven days a week, trying to make the money that they can.” McNicholas Kury issued a reminder “to be kind to people who are working in service and be a little patient if they can’t help you or get to you right away.”
Commissioner Steve Child offered a warning about driving the icy local roads and skiing backcountry areas. Snowfall came early this season, in late October, leading to unstable conditions for much of the past eight weeks.
“There are a lot of icy places on the roads, and the conditions are not ideal,” Child said. In the backcountry, “It doesn’t take much of a slide to bury somebody and kill them. …I want everybody to have a good time but do it safely.”
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said the holiday period doesn’t have a larger rate of accidents than other times of year because people aren’t driving as fast on Highway 82 due to traffic congestion.
Still, local roads are slick, and there are places in the area where motorists do attempt to drive faster, such as McLain Flats, Owl Creek and Brush Creek roads.
“Stay out of your car, get a fat bike, and navigate your way around Aspen,” DiSalvo said. “If driving, make sure your snow tires don’t look like baloney skins. Drive carefully and slowly and respectfully. Respect the road conditions, which are slicker than snot.”
He had a message for those who are prone to acts of road rage: “Keep your fingers to yourself, don’t put one in the air.”
During the two-week period surrounding Christmas and New Year’s, Aspen-Snowmass hotel occupancy rates typically rise above 90 percent at each property and many lodging facilities sell out on certain days. The same is expected of the upcoming holiday season.
The county issued a news release on Wednesday saying the airport is better equipped to handle the tourism crunch this season. Reconfigurations of space have added more capacity to the passenger boarding area inside the terminal and also the facility’s parking lots, the release states.
Beginning today through Jan. 5 — the peak of the winter tourism season — total flights into Aspen by commercial airlines United, Delta and American will reach up to 38 flights per day. That’s a slight decrease from the maximum of 41 flights per day during the same holiday period last year.
Local officials have noted that each airline dropped one daily nonstop flight from its list to reduce the potential for overcrowded conditions at the airport. A cramped atmosphere negatively affected visitors, locals and airport employees several times last winter.