McLain Flats road

McLain Flats Road was not so busy on Tuesday afternoon, but many commuters use the county thoroughfare in the mornings and early evenings.

Black Hills Energy will start its McLain Flats Road gas-line installation work next week at the project’s southern end to give company officials and Pitkin County more time to determine whether a portion of the Rio Grande Trail can be used for a later stage, County Manager Jon Peacock said Tuesday.

McLain Flats Road is a commonly used alternative for commuters traveling to and from Aspen when Highway 82 is congested between Buttermilk Mountain and the entrance-to-Aspen roundabout. Members of the Woody Creek Caucus in recent weeks have expressed concern about the proposed six-month project and its effect on travel times during the upcoming summer tourism season.

Caucus members also questioned comments a Black Hills contractor made at their March 28 meeting. The contractor said the county’s Open Space and Trails department said no to the concept of using the trail corridor. Caucus members say using a section of the trail would reduce the impact on motorists as well as shorten the length of the project.

Gary Tennenbaum, director of Open Space and Trails, later clarified that the utility company never submitted a formal application to his department to use the trail. What occurred, he said, was a phone conversation in which an OST staffer told the company the department likely would not lend its support to such a request.

County commissioners, during a work session Tuesday, discussed the issue with Black Hills Energy and other county officials, including engineer G.R. Fielding. A majority of commissioners provided direction to county staff to issue a permit to the company with the condition that the project start on the southern end of McLain Flats Road project area, between Trentaz and White Star roads.

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The project is expected to start early next week and end in October. The northern end of the project area, near the three-way intersection of Smith Way, McLain Flats and Upper River Road, has been deemed the toughest section from a construction perspective, company officials said at the work session.

For the first 4,000 feet of the project’s northern end — a hilly area with narrow road shoulders — the plan involved ripping up the road to install the line beneath it. After that, project plans called for moving to the McLain Flats Road shoulder.

With the company and the county planning further study of the project, the northern-end construction likely will be tackled last, and may involve part of the trail corridor instead of the road.

“I’ll give public works the direction today,” Peacock said after the meeting. “Presumably we will let the permit go with that condition based on this discussion, and that will give Black Hills some time to submit a proposal to the county.”

Peacock said granting an easement to Black Hills Energy to use the trail for a portion of its project likely would require a commissioner-approved ordinance.

“Right now, the company has an easement to use the road, not the trail,” he said.

Commissioners noted during the meeting that the county may have learned a lesson in that large-scale utility projects may require more study and public notice, even when the companies involved have a legal right to use the easements along a public road.

“Most of our right-of-way permits are for really small projects,” Peacock said. “Is there a way for us to do more of a major right-of-way permitting process that would give caucuses and even the county and the public more notice?

“I don’t know if we have the ability,” he continued. “I’m not sure if the way the state law is set up, we can do a whole lot about it.”

Caucus members who questioned the proposed project path included Woody Creeker Tom Melberg, who said 2,500 to 3,500 motorists would be inconvenienced daily. He also said numerous cyclists who enjoy the rural scenery along the McLain Flats corridor in lieu of using the trail also would be affected.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.