Guest opinion: From trains to trails to trails and trains on the Rio Grande; light rail transit by 2050

David Hauter
Guest Opinion

Every time you hear “not enough affordable housing is the most important crisis facing Glenwood Springs,” pause and take a good look at our transportation system.

Glenwood is the umbilical cord carrying a work force to Pitkin County. The consequence is congestion in Glenwood Springs city limits coming from traffic traveling through our city to provide essential services an hour beyond. The continual traffic increase is degrading the way citizens move within the city.

The Garfield County population is greater than Pitkin and projected to be five times greater by 2050. Exponential growth will continue to occur between Glenwood and Parachute.

The pressure created by this rapid growth is a shared problem of all the communities. We need to work together to address transportation challenges driven by growth. It would be smart to worry more about building too much housing within the city limits that will further degrade the other things needed for quality of life.

It is time to resurrect the conversation for light rail transit service in the valley corridor from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. The existing right-of-way railroad corridor has been protected by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority from encroachment by overdevelopment for over 20 years.

It is time to open the door to light rail planning for an electrified light rail system within the railroad corridor, a public asset reserved for that very use — a world-class train service commensurate with world-class tourism and respectful of the natural environment. This makes more sense than adding lanes on Highway 82.

RFTA manages the Rio Grande Trail, and the rail-banking mechanism which has protected the use of the corridor for rail use from the wye junction with the railroad mainline in Glenwood Springs up valley to Aspen. RFTA was formed as a dedicated funding source for transit and trails in the corridor.

The importance of keeping the rail corridor right of way intact is an obligation RFTA has fulfilled, and nothing should be allowed to jeopardize it. Severing any section of the corridor would be a disaster.

The cost of light rail should no longer block the discussion for planning for train travel in the valley. A rail system is very possible, and funding is not the constraint imagined. The climate crisis and technological advances have brought light rail to the forefront over other options to mitigate the congestion problem on Highway 82.

It is Pitkin County’s shortage of affordable housing causing about two-thirds of the workers in Aspen and nearby Snowmass to commute into the area from as far as 85 miles away. Aspen has been arguing for years about how to manage the traffic in and out of Aspen. Today, Aspen may be amenable to train service and to lead the discussion to establish the program to achieve it.

The demographics of the upvalley population include a group of the wealthiest people from all over the world to whom a world-class train is an incredibly attractive solution. These socio-economics are in fact favorable to the consideration of the best transportation system possible funded by tax increment financing and real estate transfer mechanisms. As a corollary, it would attract investors to transit-oriented development and other funding mechanisms of federal and state programs.

The defining principle for transit-oriented development is to locate high density housing within a 10-12 minutes’ walk to a transit station. There are three locations that stand out for development of high density and mixed use neighborhoods in Glenwood. First is West Glenwood, second is the old Safeway site and third is the general area of the existing bus transfer station in the vicinity of the Roaring Fork Marketplace.

The existing bus rapid transit system, which was chosen in the 2000s as the preferred alternative to light rail through a formal Corridor Investment Study process, is thriving and can be linked to a train backbone at the transfer stations along the route all the way to Aspen.

What is missing?

A vision that looks out to at least 2050 that will bring the investment in high density housing and mixed use development with light rail transit stations from West Glenwood Springs to Aspen.

We need future planning not grounded in the insatiable desire for profit from growth but focused instead on the constraining factors of finite geographic space, and protecting the fragile ecosystem to attain sustainability of Glenwood Springs and all the communities from Aspen to Parachute.

David Hauter is an architect and resident of Glenwood Springs for 41 years who has worked on numerous city boards and committees related to downtown beautification, planning and historic preservation.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.