Town scraps two capital improvement projects

Two capital improvement projects in Pagosa Springs — the Riverwalk Extension Phase II project and the Hermosa Street Pedestrian bridge project — have been scrapped, one for an indeterminate amount of time, the other, perhaps permanently.

Both projects would have created a nexus to disparate parts of the town’s Riverwalk trail system — known locally and colloquially as “the trail to nowhere.” Now, with both plans cut by the broad knife of budgetary constraints and the town’s inability to secure necessary easements, the trails will, for a time, continue their meandering disconnect.

The Riverwalk system, originally conceived in the 1980s and developed piecemeal since then, was meant to be a showcase for the town’s river resources. Since then, with projects delayed and trail sections left isolated along various portions of the river, local residents and council members alike have grown frustrated by the town’s inability to construct a simple trail system along the river.

Former town manager Jay Harrington said in a phone interview that the project had “A lot of challenges, from start to finish. It never was an easy project.”

Of the two cancelled projects, the Hermosa Street pedestrian bridge would have played the least noticeable role in the Riverwalk scheme. Bridging the San Juan River where Hermosa and 1st streets dead-end, the bridge and the attached trails would have tied the northeast trail system to downtown.

The project was cancelled earlier in the summer as construction and material costs skyrocketed due to surging fuel prices. Faced with cost overruns on various capital improvement projects, town council axed the project out of need to prioritize.

Asked if the town has plans to resurrect the project, interim town manager Tamra Allen said, “I’d hate to speculate, but it’s not a priority at this time.”

The Riverwalk Extension Phase II project would have worked to eliminate the most prominent gap in the trail system, namely, extending the trail from its current terminus just north of the community center to the river’s edge along the riverbend (Phase III would connect trails on both sides of the river with a pedestrian bridge). Conceived in 2005, the viability of Phase II was compromised almost from the start when necessary easements for the project were not provided by The Springs Resort.

After receiving a CDOT grant for Phase II in September 2006, the town was faced with the task of surveying property it could not get access to, for a project it was not certain it could complete. With limited time allowances stipulated in the CDOT grant, the town was forced to look for alternative avenues towards completing Phase II.

As reported in the Oct. 2 and Oct. 9 editions of The SUN, the town began negotiating with the owners of a small parcel of land located just southwest of The Springs Resort and bisected by the San Juan River, known as the Watters property. As a potential work-around for lacking the necessary easements, the town made a bid on the property during the Oct. 7 council meeting.

In the midst of council proceedings, Mayor Ross Aragon took a moment to consult with board members and then asked Jean Gray (at the meeting to represent the Watters Family Trust), “How do you want that offer?”

Gray, responding to Aragon, stated “At this point, a verbal or written offer would be acceptable.”

Aragon made a brief aside to council member Mark Weiler and then Weiler spoke for council, saying, “I move that we make an offer of $200,000 for the Watters property.”

Unfortunately, for the town, attempting to purchase the Watters property for inclusion into the Phase II project created complications with federal statute, namely, the Uniform Act of 1970.

In a presentation to council during the Oct. 16 mid-month meeting, town construction manager Torry Hessman told the board that the move by council to make an offer on the Watters property had created potential problems with the CDOT grant. As Hessman stated it, the town “put the cart before the horse” when securing the grant for the project, that the town would have been better served by first developing conceptual plans and securing easements on a project prior to applying for federal grants.

In order to comply with federal standards (and therefore, satisfy the terms of a CDOT grant), the town would need to contract an independent consultant to advise a property owner of their right under the law. As Hessman pointed out to council, proceeding with the inclusion of the Watters property into the scope of Phase II could cost the town up to an additional $50,000 as well as drag the timeline for completion of the project for another two to three years.

In order to move forward on the project with minimal delay, Hessman recommended an about-face, namely, returning the CDOT grant, purchasing the Watters property, then reapplying for the same CDOT grant after acquiring the Watters property outright.

In fact, the town returned the CDOT grant money for the Riverwalk extension on Oct. 17, along with grant money awarded for the Hermosa Street pedestrian bridge . Had the town held onto the grants and attempted to use them for other projects it would have potentially jeopardized future awards of federal money.

On Oct. 27, representatives for the Watters property made a counter proposal of $500,000, an amount that caused Aragon to comment, “The town can’t justify spending that kind of money for the property.”

If the town rejects the Watters counteroffer, Phase II would be back at square one — if it ever gets back into the capital improvement budget.

However, Aragon says he’s “very optimistic” that at least Phase II of the project will finally be completed. “We’re going to try some different options, “he said, “And I’m optimistic we’ll see it included in our 2009 budget.”

Allen was likewise optimistic that, although the 2009 budget is still under discussion, “Phase II is not officially dead, it’s still on the table. We can’t know if it’s part of the 2009 capital improvement budget, but my guess is that we’ll see it in there.”

With an almost 30-year history of fits and starts, delays and complications, the Riverwalk will need more hope, more determination and, especially, more money to see the project to completion. According to Allen, costs for Phase II were estimated at $800,000, with the same estimated costs applied to Phase III — a total cost of $1.6 million. If indeed “the trail to nowhere” is going to go anywhere, further delays in the project could only hurt further progress for the project.

jim@pagosasun.com