Electric-assist bicycles could prove to be a preferred mode of alternative transportation for some commuters during the Grand Avenue bridge closure and detour that will be in place for 95 days starting Aug. 14 in Glenwood Springs.
But a decision by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board whether to allow e-bikes on the Rio Grande Trail between Glenwood and Carbondale will have to wait until next month, just days ahead of the scheduled closure.
Supporters were unable to win enough support from RFTA board members at their meeting Thursday in Carbondale to approve a request by the Colorado Department of Transportation to open the lower section of the trail to e-bikes during the detour period. Currently, any type of motorized vehicle, including electric motors, are not allowed on the trail.
Because the request came in late and was not on the agenda, Pitkin County Commissioner and RFTA board Chairman George Newman and Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt wanted to wait until the August meeting when the public could have a chance to weigh in on the idea.
That would also allow trail managers time to assess the potential conflicts between users and safety issues if RFTA were to allow e-bikes on the trail, even for an interim period, they said.
“This is an important policy decision for this board, and I don’t agree it’s a no-brainer,” Newman said.
However, waiting to make a decision is a problem for any companies or individuals looking to make the significant investment in an e-bike ahead of the detour period, Glenwood Springs City Councilor Kathryn Trauger said.
“The timing of this is a concern with the bridge closure coming up in just 30 days,” she said. “We want people to be able to plan ahead … and I’m concerned that if we wait to make this decision at our [Aug. 10] meeting, we’ll be cutting ourselves short.”
Further, it’s not just a question of temporarily opening the lower section of the valleywide trail to e-bikes while the final segment of the new Grand Avenue bridge is being built, Gould Construction owner Mark Gould said.
Doing his company’s part to help CDOT and Glenwood Springs officials meeting their goal to reduce current traffic volumes going through Glenwood by 35 percent during the detour, Gould decided to buy 29 e-bikes for his workers to be able to get around during the detour without adding to the expected traffic congestion.
Gould openly defied RFTA’s trail rules Thursday and rode one of his company e-bikes to Carbondale from Glenwood to address the RFTA board. He said the time has come to recognize e-bike riders as legitimate trail users and allow them permanent access to the entire length of the Rio Grande.
He pointed to support for e-bikes from Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Legislature, which recently passed a measure defining e-bikes as having no more than a 750-watt motor, with limited speeds of up to 20 mph and the ability to use pedal power, as a bicycle.
Gould noted that several Colorado communities, from Denver and Boulder to Summit County and Durango, have begun to allow e-bikes on paved bike and foot trails. Glenwood Springs is allowing e-bikes on city-maintained trails during the detour, including the portion of the Rio Grande that runs through town. It is considering allowing them permanently.
Gould said he prefers the e-bike to a regular bike so that he can ride to the office or to a meeting and not have to worry about showering because he worked up a sweat.
“The issue is access, and you’re telling me I can’t commute to work next May after the detour now that I’ve invested in these bikes,” he said. “This group is tasked with getting traffic off the road, that’s what you do with your buses and the bike trail, and now the governor is behind you on this issue.”
Snowmass Village Mayor and RFTA board member Markey Butler said that, as executive director of HomeCare and Hospice of the Valley, she too is looking into buying e-bikes to help her nursing staff get to and from home visits in the lower valley more easily during the detour.
“We can’t wait on this. … If we can’t get our employees to work, we’ve got a real problem,” she said in support of the temporary request by CDOT.
Carbondale Mayor and RFTA board member Dan Richardson offered that allowing e-bikes temporarily on the lower Rio Grande during the detour would be a good opportunity to study their impact for future consideration.
“We can give staff permission to terminate it if we realize there are problems,” he said.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the city of Aspen have also been in discussions with RFTA about allowing e-bikes on certain sections of the trail through their jurisdictions.
The RFTA board will ask for input from staff, including trail rangers, and will take up the question of allowing e-bikes during the detour at the Aug. 10 meeting in Carbondale.