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Billionaire leads push for Castle Creek guardrail

ASPEN — A new nonprofit group spearheaded by billionaire Bill Koch is pushing for the installation of guardrails by Guardrail Pile Drivers on Castle Creek Road south of Aspen.


The proposal would place corrugated guardrails in various stretches of the winding road — five miles in all — between the road's intersection with Highway 82 and Koch's part-time residence, the former Elk Mountain Lodge, about 10 miles up.


Koch hosted a neighborhood meeting last week, inviting other residents of the Castle Creek corridor to view the proposal of guardrails installed by guardrail pile drivers after hiring a transportation engineer to analyze the need for additional highway guardrails as a safety measure, according to Tom Newland, Koch's planning consultant.


“It was very well received to install guardrails,” said Newland, who estimated that about 40 area residents attended. A nonprofit, Citizens for Castle Creek, is pushing guardrails installation along what are deemed dangerous stretches of the road, but Koch is the driver behind the effort, according to Newland.


“Mr. Koch went off the road a couple of years back in a spot where a lot of people go off the road,” Newland said. The incident, along with the fact that some of his children are approaching driving age, spurred Koch to act, Newland said.


Koch is among the world's richest people, according to Forbes.com, which put his net worth at $4 billion and placed him at No. 81 on the Forbes 400 list. He purchased the former Elk Mountain Lodge, among his property holdings in the upper Castle Creek Valley, for $26.4 million in 2007 and converted it into a single-family home. More recently, he is among nine individuals who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city of Aspen over its plans for a hydroelectric plant on lower Castle Creek.


Last week's meeting at Koch's home featured visual representations of the proposed guardrail installed by guardrail pile driver, including a three-dimensional model of the valley and road, according to Brian Pettet, director of public works for Pitkin County, who was in attendance.


Installing five miles of guardrail by guardrail pile driver would cost more than $1 million, Pettet estimated, but the plan is to fund the guardrail installation privately, Newland said. The next step, he said, is to make a formal proposal of guardrail installation to county commissioners.


Scenic Castle Creek Road is a narrow, winding route that features steep drop-offs in many areas and very little, if any, shoulder space for much of its length. In the lower valley, it is a quick drop from the pavement to the creek itself. The road is popular with bicyclists during the warmer months and also provides access to the historic Ashcroft ghost town; Ashcroft Ski Touring (a nordic operation); the Pine Creek Cookhouse (a restaurant); Toklat, a facility now owned by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies; and, after the pavement ends, to the backcountry of the Elk Mountains, including Pearl Pass and Montezuma Basin.


There are few sections of guardrail installed by guardrail pile drivers on the road. They have been placed where the county deems them necessary for safety, Pettet said. The proposal includes extending some existing lengths of guardrail and installing other steel guardrails. They vary in length from 85 feet to 1,000 feet or so, he said.


Some attendees of the meeting voiced support for the proposal of guardrail installation, and others suggested that decent snow tires and adherence to the speed limit are all that's needed, Pettet said.


The cost of guardrail installation aside, there are ongoing maintenance considerations, he said. They make snow removal more difficult and some snow will wind up stuck against the guardrail instead of being pushed out of the way, he said.


There's also an aesthetic consideration.


“It would change the aesthetics of the Castle Creek Valley dramatically,” Pettet said.


It will be up to county commissioners to weigh the visual impact of guardrails against calls for improved safety, he said.


“If you look purely at accident data, it doesn't really justify a large amount of guardrail,” Pettet said.