Brush Creek roundabout a hurdle to Whetstone

Another $10 million on top of $132M?

By Mark Reaman 

Timing and money issues related primarily to a potential roundabout and pedestrian underpass at Brush Creek Road and Highway 135 are adding stress to the proposed 255-unit Whetstone affordable housing project south of Crested Butte near Brush Creek. 

Town of Crested Butte and Gunnison County officials vigorously debated Monday how to move forward to meet some regulatory and financing constraints and whether a Brush Creek roundabout must be guaranteed as part of the housing project for the town to extend water and sewer utilities to the development. Most council members said the roundabout was imperative, while county representatives said it needed a so-called “will serve” letter from the town promising the utility extension would not be tied to the roundabout to retain a $10 million grant and get in line for state regulatory approval for the utility extension from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). The county indicated such a letter without conditions connected to issues other than utilities was needed for additional financing as well. 

The county maintains it needs to break ground on the project this summer or else lose the $10 million Transformational Housing Grant from the Colorado Division of Housing. The county has asked for an extension of that grant but been turned down as it is tied to projects that are closed out by 2026. Cost estimates for the roundabout have come in at close to $10 million and that is on top of the overall project estimate now tagged at $132 million.

It was stated that CDPHE review is at least three months away, so it was necessary to get in the queue immediately. The county asked council to approve the “will serve” letter at the February 20 council meeting, but every indication was that it would be at least March before an agreement could be crafted to the satisfaction of both parties.

“The town and county have been great partners in addressing housing challenges,” said Crested Butte Community Development director Troy Russ. “Crested Butte’s Compass committed the town to comprehensive, intentional, value-based decisions so we need complete information to make informed decisions.”

Engineering questions not answered

Crested Butte Public Works director Shea Earley said that while the town council has given conditional approval for the utility extension “upon certain issues being resolved, we are waiting on a complete response from the county.” Earley said the county recently replaced its engineering consultant on the project which has impacted some continuity, but town was scheduled to meet the new engineers this week.

“Based on a preliminary review this is a very complicated project with a lot of things to work through,” said Earley. “We are working through issues now including engineering and rate structure issues.”

“Town staff doesn’t yet have sufficient information to make a strong recommendation to council,” added town manager Dara MacDonald. “The draft agreements contain some substantial changes and there is a lot of work yet to do. It won’t be ready in two weeks.”

She said with the extension of utilities it was necessary to have a thorough corridor plan in place to make sure the town and county were in long-term alignment on what the corridor around Crested Butte looked like. She also said that a pedestrian underpass and access to mass transit heading north on the highway (with an underpass from Whetstone) has always been a key issue for the town that the county could not yet guarantee would be part of the project.

Assistant county manager for operations and sustainability John Cattles said the engineering firm switch was made with the expectation it would make the process faster. He said the town’s proposed $7.5 million “buy-in” figure for utilities for the county project was higher than expected and he wanted to go over the analysis with Earley. “To be clear, there could be impacts to town we can’t compensate,” he said. “How much is the town willing to absorb?”

Assistant county manager for public works Martin Schmidt said the county has spent more than $400,000 on the Brush Creek roundabout design and had asked town staff for input, but the county had no say over whether the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) would approve such a roundabout. “The reality of the situation is we don’t control CDOT,” he said.

Assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano said the county put out a request for proposals (RFP) for a corridor plan without consulting the town given that a grant associated with such a plan had to be used before April of 2025. “Plus, we want to get ahead of development we see coming in the area,” she said while also promising that the town would be included in the development of the corridor plan since they are a “critical stakeholder.”

MacDonald said that as far as being comfortable with the engineering information needed, town wanted to, at the least, settle on the major components. “Maybe if we had five or six unanswered questions we would be comfortable, but not 57,” she said.

“I don’t think we’re that far apart,” said Cattles. “We’ll make sure we’re offering something more clear, settle in with solutions and come back with a package. Hopefully that will take weeks and not months. We need to start construction this season to be successful and that will be hard. We need the ‘will-serve’ [letter] for CDPHE and our county approval process.”

Mayor Ian Billick asked if the county was comfortable with a “will-serve” document that contained caveats given the speed of the request.

“We are willing to take some risk,” said Cattles.

“Given the outstanding unknowns, whether the county can get comfortable with taking on the level of risk the town identifies at this time is not clear yet,” said MacDonald. 

Time is money!

Gunnison County has spent more than $5 million of its own money on the acquisition of the land and the planning for the Whetstone project. The Brush Creek roundabout is initially estimated to cost about $9.7 million, including the underpass. The entire Whetstone project is expected to cost more than $132 million, not including the roundabout. 

County attorney Matt Hoyt said another component of having a “will-serve” letter is tied to overall financing. “We risk the financing that makes the project viable if we don’t have a ‘will-serve’ letter as part of the utility extension agreement,” he said. 

“Again, the more immediate concern is the CDPHE approval,” said Gunnison County manager Matthew Birnie. “It is 90 days before they will even look at a project so we need to get in that line. There is also the $10 million grant to consider.”

“The devil is always in the details,” said town attorney Karl Hanlon. “This is a very complicated project. What was described sounds easy but there is a lot on the line for both parties. I’m estimating it could be worked out by the first part of March.”

“The challenge is that time is of the essence,” said Hoyt. “The longer it takes, the more money it takes and the less likely the project happens. I agree it is a complex transaction, but time is not our friend.”

Hoyt said a “will-serve” letter with conditions only related to utilities would be acceptable to both regulatory and financing entities, but including conditions not related to utilities, like a requirement for a roundabout, is more challenging.

Roundabout with underpass critical to town

Billick said the town has long made clear that having pedestrian access under the highway, providing safe access to the northbound bus for Whetstone residents, and controlling traffic flows into town were a requirement of a utility extension, and therefore that requirement should not be a surprise.

Russ said the town has not seen any alternatives to the roundabout plan and “we are sitting here blind to any alternative. Alternatives could have major impacts, so we need to understand the alternatives.” 

Among the possible alternatives to a roundabout mentioned or insinuated at the meeting was a traffic light with accel and decel lanes at the Brush Creek intersection.

“We all understand housing is a huge priority,” said councilmember Gabi Prochaska. “But to discuss this project without access to mass transit is irresponsible. It just makes me crazy. From my perspective it is irresponsible to let go of that. I don’t want it to destroy the project, but the roundabout and underpass are needed. It will be expensive but we need it.”

“I agree that the roundabout and underpass is part of the project,” said councilmember Jason MacMillan. “If it were the only issue we could maybe work through it but it is very much part of the project.”

“The underpass is so necessary for so many reasons,” added councilmember Anna Fenerty. “To do Whetstone before the road is figured out seems backwards. There is a responsibility to deal with the traffic this creates.”

“We believe the roundabout is the right solution and we believe the intersection is critical to this the project,” said Birnie. “Whetstone won’t create any new vehicle trips since they are already coming up from Gunnison. To solve the $10 million problem of the intersection we can’t have contingencies on utilities that are outside our control.”

Birnie said the issue centered on the order of things. “If the housing is going to happen we need to move now,” he said. “We aren’t asking you to abandon your values. We’re committed to the same things you are, but we can’t solve everything at once. We can’t do everything at once. We need to advance this critical project in order.”

Billick asked what happens if the town issues the “will-serve” letter and in two years the county decides the roundabout isn’t viable.

“If housing is there, CDOT will have to raise the project to the top of the list,” said Cattles.

“We would be committed to the roundabout forever,” said Birnie. “We would pursue that solution. We just can’t guarantee it.”

“CDOT would approve the idea but the stumbling block here is paying for it,” said MacDonald. “If it’s not a roundabout, it will be something else. A concern is in the future, there will be different elected officials and different staff and so it may not be a priority.”

“The pedestrian underpass and access to transit is most important,” reiterated Fenerty. “It is hard to make a decision that could put people’s lives at risk over money. But that’s where I’m at.”

Councilmember Kent Cowherd disagreed. “I’m willing to untie the roundabout and do a ‘will-serve’ letter since the entire project could be at risk,” he said. “We need to move forward with this project. The county says they are hopeful a roundabout will happen.”

“I don’t quite understand why the county can’t make the commitment that the roundabout will stay,” said Prochaska. “We need a stronger commitment to that intersection improvement.”

“I believe CDOT will eventually solve the problem, but I’d be pretty disappointed if it didn’t happen,” said MacMillan. “I could see where through value engineering we end up with a stoplight and crosswalk and I’d be pissed. That would be my fear. I’m not sure where I stand.”

“I don’t think I’m comfortable going forward without the safety and efficiency of that intersection (roundabout) being in place,” said councilmember Mallika Magner.

Council members agreed that if a special meeting was needed to discuss options and move toward a faster decision, they would be available to hold one.

Billick concluded that no decision would be made that night. He hoped the county and town staffs could take the feedback and work toward a mutually agreeable solution. He said he was confident a corridor plan could be worked out between the town and county and was “cautiously optimistic” the gaps in the engineering issues could be bridged. But he said the transportation element was the crux of the hold-up that needed solved.

“There are no guarantees where council will come down on this until we see what you all come back with,” he told the county representatives.

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