25 March 2015: Making rail to Vail happen

Making rail to Vail happen

The results are in: The Rail to Vail is a success!

Well, okay, there’s no train through the I-70 Corridor providing rapid transit for Summit and Eagle County snow riders, but there were two from Denver’s Union Station to Winter Park on March 14 and 15, and they sold out in hours.

Skiers and boarders as well as those who wanted to go the area for just fun were elated.  No doubt some rode the train for nostalgic and “to-be-cool” reasons, but others appreciated the alternative to the never-to-be-ending I-70 morass.

The lesson learned is that people will take advantage of a rail alternative and would be willing to spend extra bucks to do so.

The current practice of dirt-cheap season passes that entices skiers and boarders by the droves to the resorts is unsustainable. When tens of thousands of riders show up on a “perfect day,” it serves to degrade the experience.  When tens of thousands trek back to Denver collectively as a pack, whatever thrill gained by the time on the hill vanishes into anguish, frustration, and anger.

Over the past decade or so, ski resorts flipped their practice of selling super expensive season passes and cheap day tickets.  They realized from a marketing standpoint more numbers mean more wallets and credit cards to drop big bucks on food and beverage, lodging, and memorabilia.

The problem is that those additional numbers need a method to get there and a place to park once there.  Thus, the I-70 drama, which negatively impacts not only Clear Creek but also the resorts’ communities.

Twenty years ago I lived in Summit County for one year.  Even then it was unbearable.  Twenty years later, ski season is a nightmare for locals.  It’s not the quality of life experience they sought when they moved there.

During a conversation on my KYGT show last summer, Commissioner Tim Mauck noted the summer traffic from Summit and Vail is also brutal if not more so than the winter’s.  Fair enough.  That being the case, it comes down to us loving our mountains to death all year long.

The metro area population is projected to grow exponentially over the coming decades as more and more people move to Colorado to play in the mountains.  That was true for me 40 years ago, and it’s true for potentially millions more today.

Colorado’s mountain region is a finite area.  It cannot expand as people increase their footprint on it.  At what point, though, does that footprint become incontrovertibly destructive to the place we love?  At what point will the carrying capacities of the environment and of the transportation system reach their limits?

As it has for decades and will forever, I-70 serves as an umbilical cord for Colorado’s playground: the major ski resorts and national forests.  Until now, the approach to the problem of increasingly restrictive access has been to widen that cord, but foresight clearly demonstrates at some point that will become untenable.

Further, saturation of the areas is lessening the experience, as I noted.  That as well as potentially prohibitive pricing and the hellacious drive home will begin to drive down the numbers of those wanting to recreate in Colorado’s high country.  At that point, the hidden hand and fundamental law of capitalism, supply and demand, will exert its power.

That’s going to happen later if not sooner.  If that’s the case, why not make it happen sooner?

We can quit catering, first to corporate resorts that expect the public to pick up the tab for building and maintaining what is essentially part of their infrastructure—I-70—and second to drivers by trying to make it convenient for them to camp, hike, or ski.

Accordingly, these messages should go out:

  • To the resorts and ancillary businesses: It’s time you ante up to pay for an alternative network of transportation.
  • To Front Range drivers: If you want to recreate in Colorado’s high country during peak demand times, be prepared to drive the gauntlet of I-70.  Learn to cope.

Only then will the one real alternative to the I-70 conundrum—rail to Vail in the form of an advanced guide way system—will become a political and economic reality.

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