Now that summer is in full swing, and Denver’s RTD has re-launched its Zero Fare for Better Air campaign, this seems like a good time for us skiers and snowboarders to revisit an old, persistent, and ever-worsening conundrum: the consequential impact of winter ski resort traffic.
The traffic, despite having reached an intolerable degree of congestion, is seldom viewed as anything more than an irritating necessity of playing in the mountains. We have collectively succumbed to the notion that we all need our own individual AWD rig if we want to go hit the slopes.
When faced with the insufferable standstills on I-70 that are now a regular occurrence from late November through April, the common response is “Well, I’ll just get up earlier.” Getting up early is well and good, but does nothing to curb the growing number of vehicles on the road. So far, the long term response, as in most places, is to widen the roads and add more lanes, a disastrous Band-Aid fix which only worsens pollution, further fractures wildlife habitat, and does little to solve congestion in the long run.
The only tenable long term solution has always been, and still is, a large-scale shift from cars to public transportation, to and from Colorado’s ski resorts. This will require increased public investment, an update to public transportation infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly, rethinking our attitudes and expectations when it comes to how we get to the mountains.
No doubt the vast majority of skiers and snowboarders would readily claim to be stewards of the outdoors, and passionate about nature. Thus, we must come to our senses and recognize the toll our winter hobbies are presently having on the natural landscape.
Sure, there are options for getting to and from the resorts without your car. There is the CDOT Snowstang bus service to numerous ski areas along the I-70 corridor, and the RTD has buses servicing Boulder’s Eldora resort. There’s also the Amtrak Winter Park Express, aka the Ski Train. And plenty of private charter services.
While these are all great options, they each suffer from familiar problems. Riders each season complain that tickets sell out early, the buses fill up quickly, and there aren’t enough scheduling options. The Snowstang routes, for example, only have one bus servicing each resort per day. The thought of being stranded at the resort if you miss your only bus is enough for all but the most timely and prompt to dismiss the bus option altogether.
The good news is that all of these options, since being unveiled, have been met with enthusiastic interest from the ski and snowboarding crowds. After all, despite being relatively inconvenient, tickets for the Snowstang and Winter Park Express still sell out quickly. This signals that, if these public options were any more accessible, and the schedules more frequent, it is likely that more and more people would ditch the cars at home in favor of mass transit.
The remedy? One strong option to start with, would be for resorts to reinvest a certain portion of income generated from season pass sales toward building out these public transit options, which would directly go back to benefiting passholders. While many resorts do already partially subsidize the Snowstang service, they could certainly allocate more of their pass-generated profits toward adding more buses and expanding the service. They could, for example, give those purchasing a season pass the ability to pay an additional add-on fee to their pass — say $100 — which would give them discounted access and priority signup for weekend shuttles.
These potential avenues would by no means be a sunk cost to the resorts, whose brands would directly benefit from the bolstered reputation and image of being industry leaders in sustainable winter recreation. Ideally, municipal governments as well as the state would help subsidize as well.
A less popular, though still viable option, would be to introduce a modest single occupancy vehicle fee on all lanes of I-70 during peak winter weekend usage (the proceeds from which could be reinvested in improving public transit options), while making the express lane a free HOV lane for all carpooling vehicles of four or more occupants.
For any of these ideas to succeed, resorts and local governments will need to do more to spread the word about alternative transport options.
Given how “eco-conscious” most of us Colorado skiers and snowboarders consider ourselves, we can and should do far better when it comes to lessening the impact of our cherished winter pastimes. It’s time for the public, the resorts, and local governments to put our heads together this season and rethink sustainable mountain transportation.
Tony Scigliano lives in Boulder.
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