Riders heading toward Aspen on the north side of the Castle Creek bridge, which allows little room for error.Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

The city of Aspen’s Open Space and Trails board thinks there’s an accident waiting to happen on the Castle Creek Bridge.

Or, to be more specific, they think it’s only a matter of time before a cyclist or pedestrian ends up getting hit by a passing car on the bridge. The reason for the danger is the narrow, raised sidewalks that don’t allow easy passage, especially when bikes or pedestrians are crossing from opposite directions.

“This is the biggest Achilles heel of our whole [city trails] network, and it’s a critical spot because people use it all the time,” said board member Charlie Eckart. “All it takes is two oncoming cyclists catching their handlebars on that raised sidewalk, and the person on the outside gets pitched into traffic.”

A cyclist heads downvalley across the Castle Creek bridge. The relatively tall curb on the bridge\ Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Eckart and his fellow board members have identified the Castle Creek Bridge as their No. 1 priority for the coming year. With help from staff members in the city’s parks and recreation department, board members intend to carry their message to Aspen City Council this fall, as budget discussions get underway.

“I’d like to see it in the budget for 2014,” said open space and trails board chair Howie Mallory.

According to Austin Weiss, trails manager for the city, an average of between 250 and 300 pedestrians and cyclists use the Castle Creek Bridge each day of the summer. And they’re in dangerously close proximity to some 20,000 cars and trucks that cross the bridge each day en route to and from downtown Aspen. It’s mainly a summertime problem, Weiss said.

Three-quarters of the cyclists and pedestrians choose the north side of the bridge, Weiss said, but the danger exists on both sides. Officials in the parks department believe most of the users are local, because they know the Castle Creek Bridge is the most direct route across the gorge, with smooth connections to Cemetery Lane and the Airport Business Center (ABC).

Local cyclists are expected to use the bridge even more in the future, as the Burlingame neighborhood grows and Pitkin County studies a potential bike-pedestrian bridge over the Roaring Fork River to connect the ABC to the Rio Grande Trail.

This view of the Castle Creek bridge, from the south, gives a hint of how spooky the ride across it can be, especially as the bridge bounces a little under heavy truck traffic. Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

For all those reasons, the open space and trails board sees the Castle Creek Bridge as part of an eventual east-west bicycle byway. The envisioned corridor would run from Bugsy Barnard Park on Cemetery Lane, through the West End on Francis or Hallam street, and connect to the post office and Clark’s Market via the short, paved trail behind the Red Brick Arts and Recreation Center.

But before the establishment of such a byway, there’s a safety problem to solve on the bridge.

“The board sees it, has identified it, and sees both a connectivity issue and a safety issue,” Mallory said. “Our next step would be to plant the seed, talk to council and see if we can get some action on it.”

To the open space board, the connectivity issue is more than just a recreational matter. It’s part of encouraging bicycle transportation in Aspen — which has been designated as a “Silver Bicycle-Friendly Community” by the League of American Bicyclists — and treating two-wheeled transportation as a viable alternative to the automobile.

“I think the bike should be looked at just like a car,” Mallory said. “We try to provide a safe, reliable platform for people to get from point A to point B.”

The cantilevered bike trail that leads under the Castle Creek bridge to the Hopkins Ave. bike way. Many cyclists instead opt to cross the Castle Creek bridge as it offers a direct route to the West End. Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Eckart and Mallory are confident that simple, affordable improvements can make the Castle Creek Bridge much safer. They envision a cantilevered railing that would attach to the bridge deck but also extend outward, giving cyclists and pedestrians a few extra inches of elbow room. A similar railing was used literally just beneath the road, on a pedestrian underpass that runs under the western terminus of the Castle Creek Bridge.

“It’s all about the railing,” Eckart said. “I think there are some real easy, economical solutions that need to be looked at.”

Parks department staff members, including Weiss and parks and open space director Stephen Ellsperman, plan to study the bridge situation and report back to the open space board with some analysis and possible solutions. With their homework accomplished, the open space board members hope to meet with the City Council sometime in the next few weeks.

“The challenge is to get the council, and even the staff, to see the vision, to see this isn’t a wacko, one-off idea,” Mallory said.

Open space board members don’t think it makes sense to close the Castle Creek Bridge to bicycle traffic because riders will use the bridge anyway, either on the sidewalks or the roadway. They also recognize that the proposed bridge “repair” is complicated by the long-debated idea of realigning Highway 82 to connect directly to Main Street.

“This is not an Entrance to Aspen issue that we want to wait for,” Eckart said. “This needs an immediate solution.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News collaborated on this story, which the Daily News published on Saturday, August 31, 2013.