Roaring Fork Transportation Authority mulls more trail policing

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Soaring numbers of users of the Rio Grande Trail have some officials wondering what needs to happen to motivate some cyclists to slow down to avoid scaring other travelers out of their wits.

Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot told the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board of directors at a recent meeting that she has witnessed or heard about several “near misses” on the trail in Carbondale this year.

“We’re really close to having a lot more incidents,” said Bernot, who is also on the RFTA board. “Because the trail is so popular, we need to have more information out there.”

And maybe, Bernot said, there needs to be more policing by trail rangers. RFTA staff agreed to schedule a discussion on the issue.

In an interview a few days after the meeting, Bernot said the heavy use of the trail has got some parents of young children wondering if they should let their kids ride the trail alone given the speeds of some road bikers. The near misses she has seen and heard about are primarily between cyclists of different skill levels, she said.

RFTA oversees the downvalley half of the 42-mile trail between Aspen’s Heron Park and the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. The speed limit is 20 mph though it is rarely enforced.

Mike Hermes, RFTA’s facilities manager who oversees trail issues, said he doesn’t perceive there are a lot of conflicts between users at this time. However, use is increasing so RFTA would be wise to hold discussions and get ahead of the issues, he said.

The stretch of trail east of Carbondale can host up to 1,000 users on a busy summer day, he said. Hermes didn’t have recent figures available, but he estimated annual trail use in the Carbondale area exceeds 75,000.

John Armstrong, a longtime ranger for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, said keeping dogs on leashes while on the trail and picking up pet waste are the top trail issues. Speeding and giving an audible single while passing are close behind the dog issues, he said.

“It’s a campaign we’ve been on for three years now, to get people to announce before passing,” Armstrong said. The campaign features Bullwinkle on a bike passing turtles. Bikers are urged to slow down, use a bell and announce they are passing. Pedestrians — and slower cyclists — are urged to stay far right and be prepared for people to pass.

Open Space hasn’t set a speed limit on the half of Rio Grande Trail that it oversees. When sight distances are long, 20 mph is low, Armstrong said. In blind spots and congested areas, 20 mph “would be really ripping through there,” he said.

Armstrong believes common sense should dictate the speed of cyclists and their behavior when passing others.

“I like people to think — what if it was your grandmother out on the trail. Would you want someone whizzing by her at 25 mph?” he said.

Speeding cyclists aren’t solely responsible for conflicts. Pedestrians or slower cyclists wearing earphones or ear buds and listening to music can be oblivious to cyclists approaching from behind. Some wander down the middle of the trail without leaving room to pass.

Basalt Mayor and RFTA board of directors chairwoman Jacque Whitsitt said, “maybe it’s time to paint a line down the middle” of the trail and direct users to stay to the right.

Whitsitt said it is imperative to find a way for trail users to get along for the safety of all. “I would hate to see them throw cyclists back on the road,” she said.

Cyclists often face a dilemma. They want to avoid conflicts with legions of casual cyclists, parents pushing strollers and pedestrians so they stay on the roads. Some motorists get peeved when cyclists use the road rather than the trail.

Bernot is optimistic the conflicts could be eased through education of all trail users and possibly ambassadors on the trail. She suggested RFTA could enlist volunteers to ride the trails and offer advice when making contact with trail users. Armstrong said the Open Space and Trails Program would also be open to that approach — assuming rangers can catch road cyclists to offer friendly advice.

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