Traffic is rising on 82; RFTA says that highlights need to protect Rio Grande corridor
Steady increases in traffic along Colorado 82 in recent years could serve to drive home the importance of keeping the Roaring Fork Valley’s Rio Grande rail corridor intact for future transportation needs.
“The Rio Grande corridor was and is viewed as an integral part of the future transportation solution for the Roaring Fork Valley,” Angela Henderson, assistant director for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, said during a presentation to RFTA’s governing board last week.
Congestion on 82, especially during morning and evening commuter times, continues to be a concern and is only getting worse, she said.
“At some point we’re looking at either expanding the highway even more, or looking at other solutions,” Henderson said. “This corridor is an important part of that discussion.”
The latest numbers speak for themselves.
Traffic volumes on 82 have started to surpass pre-recession peaks, lending to the larger conversation on how best to address transportation needs and whether reactivating the rail line for passenger, and possibly even freight service, is a viable solution.
According to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Online Transportation Information System database, traffic volumes on Colorado 82 at the Blake and South Glen Avenue intersection in Glenwood Springs have increased over the past two years from a daily average of 22,782 vehicles in 2014 to 25,072 in 2016.
The heaviest traffic month alone last year, July, saw more than 27,400 vehicles per day at that key Glenwood intersection. That’s up slightly from July 2015, and is a significant increase over that same month in 2014 (25,318) and 2013 (23,938), according to the CDOT database.
Traffic volumes last year also surpassed pre-recession numbers in 2007, when an average of 24,619 vehicles per day passed through the south Glenwood intersection, including a peak of 27,227 vehicles in August 2007.
The increases in traffic volumes come as RFTA also experienced record ridership on its valleywide bus system, which saw 5 million passengers in 2016.
The corridor option
The latest traffic data is timely, as RFTA continues work to update a plan to control access points along the Rio Grande corridor and weighs the future of the historic rail line that now serves as a non-motorized public trail between Glenwood Springs and Aspen.
A formal Access Control Plan (ACP) is intended to limit and govern the design of new corridor crossings, both public and private, in order to preserve the line for future rail and trail use.
The corridor is legally “rail banked” with the federal Surface Transportation Board. But the latest efforts to update the now 12-year-old access plan met with criticism from Glenwood Springs and Garfield County in particular as being too restrictive and too costly to local jurisdictions and property owners.
For the past two years, RFTA has been working with downvalley governments to refine the language in a way to allow more flexibility.
A new draft of the revised ACP is expected before the board next month and ready for a vote in April. It includes new language that Glenwood Springs officials say makes it more palatable, but several key policy questions need to be hammered out first.
Glenwood’s support is important, because the document requires a unanimous vote in order to be adopted.
“The city’s main concerns are essentially about access, and the large roadway projects that the city is pursuing that require road crossings,” Glenwood Springs City Manager Debra Figueroa said. “We would like to see more flexibility than we’ve had in the past.”
The rail corridor, which RFTA owns and maintains, comes into play with the city’s effort to make the new Eighth Street connection a permanent street.
Specifically, the city is hoping to avoid having to immediately replace the railroad tracks in the so-called “wye” section that were removed for the upcoming Grand Avenue bridge detour. If the tracks are to be replaced, it would likely involve construction of an expensive overpass.
The rail corridor also factors into plans for the South Bridge project where the new route is to cross the Rio Grande Trail and connect to 82 near Red Canyon. Future plans for a new vehicle bridge over the Roaring Fork River at 14th Street also would involve a corridor crossing.
“The access plan is still a critical issue for the city, because just about every major east-west street has to cross that corridor,” City Engineer Terri Partch said.
Henderson’s presentation was meant to give the current RFTA board, made up of elected representatives from each of the member jurisdictions, the relevant history behind the valley’s acquisition of the rail corridor 20 years ago and the various agreements that govern it.
The purchase was completed in 1997 when the Union Pacific/Southern Pacific Railroad sold the remaining 34 miles of the corridor from Glenwood Springs to Woody Creek to a consortium of valley governments for $8.5 million. The final six miles from Woody Creek to Aspen was acquired in 1969 by Pitkin County, which still oversees that section of the Rio Grande Trail.
Some of the funding for the 1997 purchase came from CDOT, which put up $3 million to secure the corridor for future multi-modal forms of transportation. Another $1.5 million came from Great Outdoors Colorado, which sought to preserve the recreation and conservation values of the corridor, including enhancing public lands and river access and wildlife protections.
Each entity sought provisions in the agreement that their interests be maintained in perpetuity, or the money would have to be refunded.
The primary goals for local governments in acquiring the corridor were to provide a potential transportation solution for the increasing and long-term traffic congestion on Colorado 82, and to create a continuous, non-motorized recreation trail along the corridor.
Another key provision was to maintain a “perpetual, exclusive freight rail easement, and a non-exclusive easement for passenger rail in the Glenwood Springs ‘wye’ area,” according to Henderson’s overview. She also provided a more-detailed, 5-page “white paper” that gives a time line for all that has occurred to manage and maintain the corridor, which was turned over to RFTA’s ownership in 2001.
The Access Control Plan is part of the larger comprehensive plan for the corridor, and attempts to preserve both the current trail use and the potential for future rail reactivation.
“RFTA is somewhat unique because it is the owner of the corridor and also the trail organization,” Henderson pointed out in her presentation. “RFTA is in a better position to control the destiny of the trail and future uses of the corridor, because it is the owner.”
Railbanking also keeps the historic federal land grants that make up about seven miles of the corridor in place, which is another reason RFTA must be careful that any new crossings are not viewed as severing the rail line. If the line were to be deemed severed, those portions of the corridor would revert to adjacent property owners, affecting not only future rail service but the existing trail.
An option that has been contemplated is to someday negotiate with those landowners to buy the federal grant portions of the line. But rail banking would still need to be maintained in the meantime.
Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson, who sits as the town’s alternate member on the RFTA board, said the current version of the access plan addresses Carbondale’s concerns regarding a couple of key corridor crossings in that town.
“We would be willing to adopt it based on the latest version,” he said. “But Glenwood is where the rubber meets the road, and I do understand where they are coming from in terms of the expense to preserve the corridor.”
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