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Aspen may combat traffic with `rural’ light-rail system

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Double-digit growth, mushrooming traffic and increased air pollution are forcing this resort town to embrace an "urban" solution - a $124 million mass transit system.

As the first Rocky Mountain resort town to experience many of the now-familiar Western Slope woes - skyrocketing land values and little affordable housing - Aspen is now among the first to tackle auto congestion.Last week, officials from five towns and three counties met in Washington, D.C., with the state's congressional delegation to discuss a 38-mile transit system between Aspen and Glenwood Springs.

"Aspen is the most famous resort in North America because we're special, because we're unique," Aspen Mayor John Bennett said recently. "What's going to enhance that uniqueness?

"Is it to be a four-lane highway, or is it going to be a light-rail system that no one else has?"

In the summer of 1993, an average of 28,600 cars moved in and out of Aspen every day on the main access road, Colorado 82, the most recent Colorado Department of Transportation study found.

Aspen wants to cap the number of cars entering town at the 1993 level. Bennett, an ardent spokesman for a train, has argued that a four-lane highway will homogenize the historic mining town and overwhelm it with cars.

Two years ago, Aspen tried to discourage downtown traffic by becoming the first Colorado tourist mecca to install $1 per hour parking meters. The costly meters did put more people on buses, but the number of cars has grown.

Serving both commuters and skiers, the existing regional bus system already carries nearly 4 million people per year.

If nothing is done to change people's transportation habits, state traffic engineers say, that average number of cars through Aspen may jump to an estimated 42,000 vehicles per day by the early 21st century.

So, after resisting expansion of Colorado 82 for 25 years, Aspen is now considering America's first "rural" light-rail line.

The city recently gained allies in neighboring communities such as Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, where most of its work-force lives.

Last week, Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., signed letters of support for the venture.

Thus, a proposal that was once cast as Aspen's pricey vision for a "toy train" has blossomed into a multi-jurisdictional push for a passenger rail system to serve the entire Roaring Fork Valley.

With its coffers chock-full of sales taxes, Aspen has paid engineering consultants to design a train system and answer questions from skeptics.

"If we had an even better bus system, plus a fast and economical train, the result would be more subdivisions along the valley floor and, consequently, more highway traffic," wrote Aspenite Raymond Auger in a recent guest column for The Aspen Times.

Pitkin County's population is expected to hit about 14,800 by the year 2000 - hardly enough people to warrant a train system.

But adding Eagle and Garfield counties, which are forecast to hold a combined 64,000 people by the turn of the century, the outlook changes. Many - but not all - of the newcomers will live or work in the Roaring Fork Valley.

While many locals question the high price of a rail system, most admit that a speedy, valleywide system would appeal to frustrated commuters.

"It'd be great," said commuter Barbara New, who now drives from Basalt to Aspen every day with her golden retriever, Cody. "I'd do it if I could take my dog."