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Warning: Heavy traffic ahead

Ron Wolfe

Few of us think much about traffic and commuting in the future. In the next 20 years or so, the population of Eagle County is projected to double, and the number of daily workers commuting into the county could grow from 1,000 to 30,000 per day. Current building entitlements are for another 10,000 units which could grow to 14,000 if large private tracts are subdivided as “use by right.” Imagine the impact on travel times and parking that this growth will have. How will we be able to cope with traffic? Will our quality of life be unacceptably damaged? Things could get ugly!Fortunately some elected officials and municipal staffs are thinking about future mobility. Called together by the Eagle County Regional Transportation Authority Board of Directors (ECO), representatives of the towns served by ECO and from the county met to review and discuss future mobility challenges. Coming together for two half-day sessions allowed everyone to move toward a common understanding of what is happening to population, travel demand, impacts on our road system and livability in our communities. The group studied the physical and social challenges facing Eagle County and the interrelationships between population growth, demographics, housing and land-use policies and mobility and began to better understand, forecast and begin to plan for the needs and costs to maintain mobility within the County. This column is an overview of some of the major points discussed at the meetings. Mass transit will be increasingly important as the county builds out. Currently ECO buses capture 4 percent of vehicle trips and 8.5 percent of going-to-work trips; these rates are the second-highest in the state and second only to Pitkin County. Recent trends are that total ridership is increasing, employers are contributing less to employee bus passes and are providing more on-the-job parking. Riders have to spend more time getting to bus stops and are mostly workers; student ridership is increasing.ECO finances are in delicate balance with needs but are adequate for current operations. As costs rise, especially for fuel, and as the need for service increases, fares will have to rise to keep pace and alternative funding sources may be necessary in the future.The role of ECO is to provide efficient and economical mass transit between centers of significant population density. This “point-to-point” mission boils down to a bus system that links the centers of towns and unincorporated hubs like Edwards. Any effective mass transit system in our area will have to consist of a major East-West spine – either rubber-tired or light rail – with major spurs to Leadville and up Route 131. Collector-routes, in addition to those now operated by Vail and Avon, will have to be provided by Edwards, Eagle and Gypsum and maybe even in Leadville and at any “new town” north of Wolcott. People with their own vehicles should be able to drive to a transit center, park and get on an ECO bus. Large park and ride lots will be needed in Leadville and the extreme eastern and western ends of the County. Ideally these would provide connection and transfer points to Summit and Garfield transit systems. Perhaps they will even be located in those counties at their transit system ends. Eagle County and ECO must identify and acquire land now for these future parking and transit hubs. It may be possible to use existing facilities such as the Fairgrounds lots and add to them, to reclaim sites such as the vehicle salvage property in Eagle and develop synergistic multi-use properties: river access, parking and recreation. Housing and land-use regulations and patterns that encourage development integrated into mass transit routes must be the norm across the region. Our trail network is both recreational and part of the mobility system. It encourages some people to walk and bike from place to place. Completion of build-out of main sections is slow because of ECO funding limits, partnering developments being late and challenges in acquiring access and rights-of-way. There is an opportunity to accelerate completion of the Gypsum to Vail core trail if the county kicks in some additional support. An extra $5.7 million over the next five years would get the job done, and the ECO Board of Directors has asked the county commissioners to evaluate including this in upcoming capital expense planning.All of these points are being included in a long-range mobility vision and plan being worked on by ECO. An effective future mass transit system will take a lot of money to implement and operate. Road and bridge expansions also will take a lot of money, projected at $250 million or more through 2025, and have their own negative impacts on our communities. The light rail direction would take a huge amount of money and for now is only a dream and something that we have to maintain as a future option. Prudent decision about the split of spending between roads and mass transit will have to be made. Most of us will only use mass transit when it is easy, pleasant, good value and less painful than the pain of not using it! Given what the future may bring, mass transit may become the route of choice.Ron Wolfe is Mayor of Avon and the Chairman of the ECO Board.Vail, Colorado


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