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Idea of buses next to Glenwood river trail first flirt with original corridor purchase intent

MOVE study moving nowhere fast when it comes to rapid-transit buses through Glenwood

A RFTA bus travels south on Grand Avenue near 23rd Street in midday traffic.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

There’s a deep history behind the notion of transit service running along Glenwood Springs’ portion of the Rio Grande corridor, which for the past three decades has served as the Glenwood River Trail.

Steve Smith was one of the original members of the city’s River Commission, which planned out the city’s riverfront trails network in the early 1990s.

Today, he sits on the equally influential city Transportation Commission, as it seeks to help city leaders weigh the options for extending the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system through Glenwood Springs’ central core to West Glenwood.

Among the options outlined recently are to eliminate parking along Grand Avenue through downtown to allow for a dedicated bus lane, to run buses alongside the River Trail on the old railroad corridor between Eighth and 23rd streets; or, some combination of both.

History lesson

In the 1990s when the in-city portion of trail — which today links up to the valley wide Rio Grande Trail — was constructed, the corridor was still owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, Smith recalled.

“There were still a few deliveries running along that section of track,” Smith said of infrequent freight train runs to the Orrison Distributing warehouse south of town.

Just a few years before that, those same tracks carried fairly regular coal trains from Carbondale to the main UP line in Glenwood Springs.

So, when the trail was built, the deal was that the railroad tracks had to be preserved, Smith said. Thus, the trail itself was built alongside the tracks, which still exist in that stretch.

That same line of thinking carried through when a coalition of valley governments banded together to purchase what by then was an inactive rail line in the late 1990s — and again when that corridor was transferred a few years later to RFTA.

Though the push at the time was to continue building a valley wide bike and pedestrian trail, the long-term vision was that, someday, the corridor could serve a dual purpose for transit.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the MOVE Study being done by RFTA in partnership with the city, has identified the Rio Grande corridor as just that — a potential dedicated bus route through the middle part of Glenwood Springs.

Looking to the future

The MOVE Study came up at the Thursday RFTA Board of Directors Webex meeting.

It’s the first time since a feasibility study in the early 2000s resulted in the BRT system that a portion of the old rail corridor has been eyed for mass transit needs. But it’s not something that’s going to happen anytime soon.

The various options are going through a stage two screening process to determine a preferred alternative, which ultimately would be put through a formal Environmental Analysis. That’s likely to take at least two years to complete, Kurt Ravenschlag, RFTA’s chief operating officer, said during the meeting.

Extension of BRT from where it ends now at 27th Street through Glenwood Springs was part of the Destination 2040 plan approved by voters through a property tax measure two years ago. Even so, supplemental federal grant funding is needed to complete much of the work, Ravenschlag said.

“It could be three years before we get to construction,” he said.

The main reason BRT service now ends on the south end of town is because of traffic congestion that would make it difficult to keep schedules, Ravenschlag explained.

“Glenwood Springs is currently the choke point for traffic not only originating in Glenwood Springs, but also by traffic originating in western Garfield County and traveling to, or through Glenwood Springs to up-valley locations,” he wrote in his memo to the RFTA board explaining the reason for the study.

“Traffic conditions in Glenwood Springs already make transit connections through town unreliable; which will only be exacerbated with the projected 40%-50% traffic increases on (State Highway) 82 over the next 20 years.”

Population is also expected to grow 40% in Garfield County over that same period of time, prompting the desire for more transit options, he said.

Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes, who represents the city on the RFTA board, said City Council has not made a recommendation yet on the bus routing alternatives.

There’s also pushback with either the Grand Avenue or trail corridor options, he said — from downtown businesses who don’t want to give up on-street parking, and from trail users and residents who live near the trail corridor who don’t want to see buses there.

“We are intrepidly moving forward with this study, though,” Godes said. “We all know that, at some point, it’s going to be a nice plan with pretty pictures, and hopefully $20 million in funding. But it would be a mischaracterization that it’s something we’re chomping at the bit to do.”

Carbondale Trustee Ben Bohmfalk, the town’s alternate on the RFTA board, said he’s excited about the prospect of using the rail corridor for transit.

“I would encourage everybody to keep an open mind about these alternatives,” he said. “People get used to things being a certain way, but we do have to continuously remind people that the corridor was acquired for transportation.

“I look forward to the day when we can use it as a transit corridor, and maintain the trail as well,” Bohmfalk said.

Godes noted that there may be options to relocate the trail closer to the Roaring Fork River in parts of Glenwood Springs where the city owns land west of the corridor.

Smith advises against that, but with another form of transportation in mind — bicycles.

“All trails have a recreational component, but they also carry with them a practical transportation purpose for commuters, kids getting to school and just going to the store,” Smith said. “I’ve been advising that we don’t get too drawn into the recreational component of it, and in the process sacrifice the efficiency of the trail for transportation.”

jstroud@postindependent.com


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