Attracting skiers is a slippery slope for Colorado mountain resorts
Interstate 70 traffic is getting ridiculous. We need bold solutions.
When a business says it has too many customers, you know something is seriously wrong. Last month, Arapahoe Basin, one of the closest ski areas to Denver, announced it would end its alignment with Vail Resort’s Epic Pass next season. Considering the partnership helped A-Basin double its revenue over the decade ending in 2016, that might seem like a surprising decision.
But money isn’t everything when there’s too much congestion to get everyone to the ski lifts. In particular, A-Basin said it doesn’t have the parking to accommodate the deluge of would-be Mikaela Shiffrins who want to test their skills on the notoriously tough mountain.
Whether you’re a Colorado native or have spent even one weekend driving west from Denver to try your luck against the Centennial State’s stunning natural features, you understand the horror of Interstate 70 (I-70) traffic.
On top of all the out-of-state tourists visiting for their bucket-list skiing, hiking and rafting vacations, “weekend warriors” from the Denver area are hitting the roads in ever-increasing numbers to get to slopes, fourteener trailheads, rapids and other worthwhile adventure spots.
And why wouldn’t we? Colorado boasts some of the nation’s best outdoor recreation opportunities. It was among the top reasons I decided to go to college in the state (Colorado College), and then moved to Denver after I graduated.
But more and more, these awesome experiences are marred by frustratingly long travel times. We’re reaching bumper-to-bumper critical mass. As one Coloradan bleakly told the Associated Press recently: “I would prefer to risk my life on some level [by going backcountry skiing] … as opposed to sit in I-70 traffic on the weekends.”
I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I relate to the sentiment, haunted by my seven hour drive back from Beaver Creek this past Sunday. I’ve spent many an early morning, fuming in standstill I-70 traffic, wondering — can’t we do better?
In many ways, we have to do better for the sake of the planet and our health. To be sure, worsening traffic bottlenecks are annoying. But the relatively minor inconvenience of spending a couple more hours in traffic, or not being able to ski at A-Basin on the Epic Pass, pales in comparison to the inconvenient truth that emissions from transportation are now the top contributor to climate change in the United States, and contribute to poor air quality.
Earlier this week, Denver’s air quality index was three times worse than Beijing’s, triggering health warnings. Unfortunately, such health alerts aren’t rare. A report by Environment America found that in 2015 Denver had more than 100 days of elevated smog pollution.
With all that in mind, we simply have to find more efficient and cleaner ways to get people up to the mountains. Those options should not involve personal, gas-guzzling cars.
Even with A-Basin’s decision, the underlying problem isn’t going away anytime soon. The popularity of the Epic Pass and its new rival, the Ikon Pass, is staggering. Last year, more than 1.1 million people bought one of those two options. Those numbers have certainly contributed to congestion during the winter.
A guide released by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG) in 2017 found at least 16 ways people could get to the mountains without a car. Choices included taking a bus on the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT)’s West Line, hopping on the Amtrak Winter Park Express Ski Train, or opting for a ride-sharing program.
However, none of these 16 solutions seem to have significantly alleviated the traffic problem. In fact, some of those offerings don’t even exist anymore.
Blame it on cost or convenience, but this goes far beyond ski passes and limited parking at resorts. Denver’s population growth is a huge part of the story, as is the fact that Colorado’s transportation system still relies too heavily on highways and cars. From 2010 to 2017, the Denver metro area population increased by an average of nearly 51,000 residents annually. And with large numbers of people still moving here, with more vehicles, the problem will get worse unless we do something about it.
As CoPIRG director Danny Katz noted: “Given there’s only a couple of routes and thousands of us are going to just a handful of places, all of us driving our own cars is completely inefficient.”
Despite the uphill battle, some solutions are encouraging. The most promising bright spot is the Bustang, Colorado’s first-ever statewide public bus service. It opened in 2015, connecting Denver to Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and mountain communities along I-70.
Since its inaugural ride, Bustang has been a huge success. Last year, on its third anniversary, CDOT announced that the bus service had exceeded its revenue and ridership goals. Overall, 450,000 passengers have used Bustang, and ridership is up by more than 300 percent since 2015 with more routes set to be added.
This is all part of CDOT’s multi-modal mission, which aims to “alleviate congestion and offer more travel choices for longer-distance commuters on the state’s urban and rural corridors.”
That’s great. We should build on Bustang’s success, expand routes and get more buses on the road.
CDOT also opened an eastbound Mountain Express Lane, which runs weekends and holidays to alleviate traffic back to Denver during peak travel times. While there’s evidence it gets people to where they need to go faster during said peak times, it doesn’t solve the underlying cars and people problem.
In other words, as U.S. PIRG transportation campaign director Matt Casale explained well here, freeing up more space for cars still encourages people to drive cars.
We need to get out of our car-centric way of thinking, and fundamentally reconsider how we get from the city to the mountains. The hard truth is we’re not going to carpool our way out of this problem.
So, as Danny recently said to me, “it’s time to get radical.” Beyond expanding and dedicating more resources to Bustang, here are a couple big ideas:
We could turn one of the general purpose I-70 lanes into a buses-only lane, and fund it in a way to make the mountains accessible to everyone.
We could install a dedicated, high-capacity train or rail line from the city to all the Summit County and Vail Valley mountain resorts along the I-70 corridor.
And of course, we need to go big and invest in electric vehicle infrastructure to cut down on global warming pollution and clean up our air.
These are obviously large-scale changes and, to some degree, are oversimplified. But we need to start thinking bigger, bolder and outside-the-box. To solve the grand problem that is I-70 traffic, we need a grand solution.