RFTA’s CEO says ‘reasonable’ lighting needed on Highway 82
The head of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) said Tuesday he agrees with citizens who are calling for additional lighting along Highway 82 from the Aspen Airport Business Center to Buttermilk and along a pedestrian trail into Aspen.
Dan Blankenship, CEO of the bus agency, said the lights could help occasional pedestrians who stray onto the highway realize that they shouldn’t be there. And better lighting on the pedestrian trail that parallels the highway could steer people in the right direction if they are unfamiliar with the area.
Blankenship said he realizes people value the night sky and the ability to view the stars, but that’s trumped by safety in some areas.
“It’s a hard call. I would be supportive of more lighting in that area,” Blankenship said.
Better lighting might have prevented the tragic death of Joanie Marie Kocab, a newcomer to the area who was hit and killed by a RFTA bus as she walked upvalley in the bus lane early Jan. 1. Kocab was wearing dark clothing and walking in an area where pedestrians aren’t expected and aren’t frequently encountered by vehicles. The bus driver didn’t see her, according to a report. Kocab was struck from behind by the Aspen-bound bus and killed.
Blankenship said the stretch of ground between the Aspen Airport Business Center and Buttermilk is particularly dark. A guard rail offers no opportunity to walk along the side of the road. The bus lane is about three-quarters of a mile between the airport entrance road and Owl Creek Road.
People familiar with the highway cannot fathom how someone could end up walking along that stretch. But the New Year’s Day tragedy shows that it can happen, Blankenship said. That’s why he favors taking preventative action.
A different bus driver saw a pedestrian walking at night earlier this month in the same general area where the fatal accident occurred, according to Blankenship. Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies also responded to a call Tuesday morning of a pedestrian with a backpack walking toward the highway along an on-ramp from the airport parking lots and Aspen parking pass kiosk. It was daylight, but roads were slippery. The reporting party was concerned for the pedestrian’s safety. Deputies didn’t see a pedestrian when they arrived.
Joe Bauer, a longtime deputy and patrol supervisor, said he doesn’t necessarily disagree that lights would be helpful between the airport and Buttermilk. On the other hand, there isn’t a steady stream of pedestrians walking that stretch, he said.
Blankenship doesn’t support the idea of lighting the highway from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. It’s still a rural highway with rural lighting standards in many places, he said. Around bus stops and particularly dark areas, there must be an adequate amount of lighting, Blankenship said.
“I think having a few lights between Buttermilk and the airport would be useful,” he said. “It needs to be reasonable. We don’t want it to be like a football stadium.”
Aspen resident Michael Nickerson, who was riding the bus that struck Kocab, is pushing for extra lighting. “She never would have been there” if there were additional lights, he said.
Nickerson said he spoke to Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland and was directed to air his concerns with a city staff member. Nickerson was also directed to speak to the Colorado Department of Transportation, which oversees the highway right of way. He said he hasn’t had time yet to make that call.
Longtime Aspenite Jon Busch in an opinion piece in the Aspen Daily News called for additional lights along the pedestrian trail from the business center to Aspen. Blankenship concurred. He said a dark path can be difficult for a newcomer to find, and it can be intimidating for anybody from a safety aspect.
There are no imminent plans to add lighting to either route.
“You’ve got to look at it carefully because, as you know, a lot of people are against excess lighting,” Ireland said. He favors teaming with the state transportation department and Pitkin County to perform a safety study for the corridor from the airport to Aspen.
Nancy Shanks, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, said the traffic engineer who handles Highway 82 couldn’t offer any comments at this time because an investigation of the Jan. 1 accident hasn’t been completed and forwarded to the agency.
The Colorado State Patrol, Pitkin County and 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office are investigating the accident. The driver remains on paid administrative leave.
“She’s been shaken by it,” Blankenship said. “She’s a sensitive, caring individual. It had a profound impact on her.”
Blankenship said the bus driver has been with RFTA for more than three years. He couldn’t say definitively if she will choose to return to driving, he said. Most RFTA drivers involved in serious accidents eventually return to driving, he noted.
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