One phase of Pitkin County’s ASE Vision process has basically been completed.
More than eight months of work by four subcommittees tasked with coming up with general recommendations for the future of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport has been finalized through reports that are now in the hands of the overarching ASE Vision Committee. Members of that group will meet in January and February to mull over the work of their peers, conduct research of their own and listen to more experts in the aviation industry, under the goal of providing specific recommendations to Pitkin County commissioners about how to proceed — or not — with what airport and county officials say are necessary upgrades to the terminal building and airside infrastructure.
As with any issue related to growth and the further erosion of the Aspen-area’s so-called small-town character, there is controversy.
As Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said during the Dec. 5 meeting at the Aspen Meadows in which three of the four subgroups presented their findings, “This is an emotional topic for our community. It has been for a lot of decades.” His comment was part of a plea to the audience to refrain from disrespectful behavior during presentations by subcommittee members representing the majority or the minority opinions of their respective groups.
While the ASE Vision Committee is armed with the majority reports that call for a variety of undertakings — including construction of a new terminal building and the widening of runways and taxiways to accommodate aircraft with a wider wingspan than what is currently allowed — they also have been provided statements and reports from subgroup members who have been identified, or identify themselves, as the minority.
Most members of the minority do not favor airport expansion. They have concerns about the effects upon the Roaring Fork Valley related to air quality, noise, traffic, tourism dependence and a strong feeling that the public process to determine the airport’s future has been swayed by officials and experts determined to see that up to $500 million worth of upgrades comes to fruition.
While the previously documented majority opinions likely will be given more credence than the minority reports — given their status as the general consensus of the subgroups — those among the minority vow to continue. Should the commissioners receive specific recommendations from the overarching committee in the spring, it’s a safe bet that expansion opponents will flood the county’s meeting room to make their feelings known and inundate local newspaper editors with letters attempting to effect yet another split on a crucial topic relating to growth.
As local real estate broker Tim Mooney, an outspoken critic of the ASE Vision process who presented a minority report on behalf of the Focus subcommittee, said Friday, “I’m going right to the wire.”
The majority opinions of the subgroups have received the lion’s share of media and public attention thus far. This story will focus on the statements and opinions of the minority, which are likely to resurface in the spring when commissioners take up the topic — and following a period that could end up being viewed as, if expansion concepts are ultimately thwarted, the winter of the opponents’ discontent.
The 17-member ASE Vision Technical Working Group met for more than 70 hours between February and December. Peacock facilitated the meetings in which between 10 and 14 members regularly participated.
Its recommendations for future airside improvements at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport include a runway widening that will accommodate aircraft with wingspans of up to 118 feet, a 23-foot increase from the current limitation of 95 feet. The expected retirement of the CRJ-700 aircraft, which has a 76-foot wingspan, necessitates the change, according to the technical group’s majority report, which was approved by a 9-2 vote.
Allowing planes with up to a 118-foot wingspan is widely feared by expansion opponents who envision regular landings of Boeing 737s with a 117-foot wingspan and a carrying capacity of 126 passengers or more. But the technical group’s report suggests that such a scenario is extremely unlikely due to the size of the local air market. Questions also surround the 737’s performance in mountainous terrain as well as the aircraft’s production issues.
The crux of the report is the recommendation to do away with “nonstandard conditions” that the county has applied to the local airport, which falls under the FAA’s Airplane Design Group III classification. Such conditions include the local 95-foot wingspan limit and the 320-foot separation between the taxiway and the runway. ADG III airports allow for wingspans up to 118 feet and have 400-foot separations.
Woody Creek resident Phil Holstein presented his minority report verbally at the Dec. 5 meeting. Holstein did not submit a written version to the technical subcommittee.
Holstein said he moved to the area in 1968 and has seen the airport grow substantially over the years. He said he agrees with most of the technical committee’s report and commended the group members for their intelligent discussions.
“The one major thing that I do not agree with is the recommendation to move immediately to a full [ADG III] airport,” he said. “The reason that I am concerned about moving at this time to a full phase III airport, which is kind of a hub airport with capacity for much larger airplanes, is I think the uniqueness of Aspen is one of the major reasons for its economic vitality. We are not ‘Anywhere USA.’”
He said he is concerned that the community is beginning to “push the envelope” of that uniqueness and put it in jeopardy for economic reasons.
“I would hate to see that happen because there’s very few places left like Aspen,” he said.
He said he believes there should be a larger terminal building. The possible airside expansion worries him.
“Once we lose control, as a community, and give it to the FAA … I think we put our uniqueness in jeopardy,” he said. “Suppose we have larger airplanes, and three come in at the same time, and 300 to 400 people get off. I can’t imagine the congestion that would follow.
“We’re not equipped to handle shoulder-to-shoulder traffic. We’re not L.A.
We’re just a different type of community.”
He referred to a community vote in 1995 to expand the airport. Voters rejected the proposal by a 2-1 margin.
“I suspect that if a vote were to be taken today, we might get a similar result. I don’t know,” Holstein said.
The majority report was presented by technical subgroup members Chris Bendon, a local planner and former city of Aspen community development director, and Bill Tomcich, the community’s liaison to commercial airlines serving the airport.
David Corbin, senior vice president of planning and development for Aspen Skiing Co., also served on the subcommittee.
Airport Experience group
The Airport Experience subgroup passed motions calling for a terminal that would have eight gates, one more than the airport currently utilizes. Gate expansion could be incorporated “as needed in the design,” the subcommittee suggested.
The subgroup also supported additional stories for a new terminal building. The current terminal building is considered a one-story structure. Additional stories should be in keeping with the “Aspen character to support appropriate massing, taking into consideration topography and [construction] phasing.”
The terminal design should incorporate “best practices worldwide” for employee accommodation and operational efficiency, the subcommittee report states. “Rental housing dedicated to airport employees should be incorporated into this process,” group members decided.
Other findings from the subcommittee were that jet bridges should replace the current system in which travelers walk out on the tarmac to board their flights. Also, a new terminal should include an overflow area for luggage that meets safety and TSA requirements; multimodal forms of transportation should be supported; and for safety reasons, areas outside of the terminal need sidewalks that are either protected from the elements via shelter or overhang, or that employ a geothermal snowmelt design.
Committee member James E. Hughes Jr. presented the minority report at the Aspen Meadows gathering. In his written statement to the subgroup, he focused on the issue of expanding the number of gates.
“During the discussion of my motion [on Oct. 2 to limit the number of gates to seven] it became clear that a strong majority of those present favored more gates and with unlimited future possible expansion,” he wrote. “I appreciate that ‘unlimited’ isn’t likely what they meant but that is what the [later motion] that was voted on says as it places no ceiling on the number of possible gates.”
Hughes said that he didn’t feel the subgroup had enough information on the effect of additional gates on parking planes, tarmac access, support services and off-premises transportation. Without that information, he believed the subcommittee members would be voting on “emotion alone and not on fact.”
Hughes also opposed the jetways recommendation. “I add that I see no need for the expense of jetways,” his minority report says. “I also enjoy walking to and from the planes and the experience of the mountains and views it offers.”
The Focus subcommittee was tasked with developing ideas for improved airport connectivity. Its report says more convenient ground transport to and from the airport would include a mix of public and private modes of transportation, and consideration should be given to a variety of mass-transit possibilities, “including light rail, monorail, gondola and greater utilization of [Roaring Fork Transportation Authority] buses, if feasible.”
Other recommendations include “weather-protected facilities” around the airport to enhance convenient movement to and from the new terminal and to and from ground-transportation modes. Currently, arriving travelers must walk outside of the terminal into an open-air setting to catch a cab, shuttle or private ride that will take them to their destinations.
The nearby RFTA bus stop for transport to Aspen or downvalley destinations also was a concern. Travelers must walk a short but winding distance along a concrete path to the bus stop, first downhill then uphill, and up a flight of stairs, without protection from possible inclement weather, such as snowfall. This can prove difficult for travelers carrying luggage or managing children.
“There should be a coordinated balance of facilities for adequate parking, car rental, shuttle, taxi and private drop-off and pick-up,” the report states. “Additionally, coordinated management of traffic through the facility will maximize traveler convenience while minimizing energy consumption.”
Two focus subcommittee members, Sue Tatem and Tim Mooney, presented minority reports.
Tatem, 75, a retired biology professor, wrote that Aspen already has the “best airport” and the “fastest in and out” in the world. She volunteered to participate in the ASE Vision process “to try to save the best of this best airport.”
Also, her report states that based on her travel experiences, no airport in the world has such a short distance from the baggage area to ground transportation services such as shuttles and taxis. To Tatem, the transport system is “seamless.”
Tatem added that she opposes jetways and supports a single-story terminal building. She believes a new terminal does not need a restaurant or gift shop, and both could be reduced to unmanned kiosks. She said she’s not in favor of expanding RFTA’s presence at the airport.
Mooney’s minority report was broader, critical of the ASE Vision process on the whole and those who have been managing it.
He said an Environmental Assessment should be conducted to ascertain the effects of expansion not only on the area surrounding the airport, but on the city of Aspen, the town of Snowmass Village and the entire Roaring Fork Valley. He expressed concern about spending half a billion dollars on projects that will bring about “irreversible lifestyle changes” and an uncertain impact on tourism and the community’s character.
He questioned the notion that the FAA will downgrade the airport to ADG II status unless the proposed airside improvements are realized. He said the community should be allowed a final vote on airport expansion, that the issue shouldn’t be left up to commissioners, and added that all of the ASE Vision group members should be allowed to vote on whatever recommendations the overarching committee develops.
“Everyone who volunteered to serve on the ASE Vision process should get a vote on the referral to county commissioners,” Mooney said. “They should at least do that.”
Mooney said that given the minority votes within each subgroup, the ASE Vision process failed to reach community consensus. He said it’s clear to him that with removal of the local ADG III conditions related to wingspan and a runway widening, “737s will be flying in here all winter.” He cast doubt on officials’ statements that the CRJ-700s will soon be retired, saying they could be the workhorse of Aspen’s commercial air fleet through 2039.
“The resort is setting records for skier visits and return on investments now,” his report states. “The economy in the Roaring Fork Valley is strong. Why kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs?’
Community Character group
The Community Character subcommittee released its report in October, asking the other groups to view all of their proposed recommendations through the “community character lens.” It laid out various “success factors” for all of the other groups to consider.
The group said the initiative should concentrate on the terminal for now and the “airside” later because of a lack of baseline data regarding the current effect of airport operations on the community.
No minority report from the group has been posted to the ASE Vision website. The group did not reach consensus on the question of whether the runway should be widened.