Aspen Times Weekly: Strangled by success
GONDOLAS GONE WILD
An increasing number of ski areas are connecting the dots.
Ski area operators that have two adjacent ski mountains are sweetening the pot for customers — and removing driving and parking headaches — by connecting them with gondolas.
Vail Resorts created the largest ski area in the country Dec. 18 when it fired up a high-speed gondola connecting Park City Mountain Resort and The Canyons. The Quicksilver Gondola’s terminals are strategically placed at terminals of other chairlifts located up on the slopes of the two ski areas. It makes the trip between the ski areas in 8½ minutes. A midway station allows passengers to disembark and ski terrain in either ski area.
Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are trying to make the link after years of talking about it. The ski operator’s application is in the early stages of review by Placer County and the U.S. Forest Service.
The plan is for a gondola that would travel about 13,000 feet in length. The gondola would have capacity to haul 1,400 passengers per hour in eight-person cars. It would make the trip from base to base in about 13 minutes. A midpoint station would let skiers and riders out on the slopes.
A website explaining the proposal estimates it would eliminate 100 vehicle trips per day during the ski season. The lift wouldn’t operate outside of ski season and the gondola cars would be tucked away to preserve the natural beauty of the area.
The plan has run into objections from a coalition of environmental groups, so the review could take an unknown amount of time.
Environmental concerns regularly hampered discussions of a gondola connecting the Aspen-Snowmass ski areas in the 1980s and 1990s. Environmental groups criticized the concept before a formal application was made by Aspen Skiing Co. Environmentalists objected to plans to run the lift over Burnt Mountain — the wildlife friendly terrain between West Buttermilk and Snowmass.
Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said transit planning for the upper valley is in such an early stage that it is impossible to say now if an interconnecting gondola for the ski areas would be considered separate from ground transportation upgrades.
If Skico could ever pull it off, it would truly unleash the Power of Four. The four ski areas combine for 5,517 acres.
Michael Berry, president of National Ski Areas Association, an industry trade group, said cable ropeway systems are coming into their heyday. Many destination resorts struggling with traffic congestion are seeking solutions.
“I don’t think Aspen-Snowmass is unique,” he said.
A resort like Crested Butte would be well served solving its traffic issues with a gondola connecting the town with the mountain village, where the ski area is located, he noted. You don’t have to look any further than Telluride for proof of the “transformative” power of an interconnection, Berry said.
Telluride opened what it bills as a one-of-a-kind public transportation system in November 1996. The gondola hauls workers and sightseers as well as skiers and snowboarders between Telluride and Mountain Village. And it’s free.
The gondola entices visitors and locals to leave their keys at home and replace what is an 8-mile drive between the two towns with a 3-mile gondola ride over the mountains with spectacular views. The ride time is 13 minutes.
“Over 2.5 million people ride the gondola each year, which reduces environmental impacts caused by vehicles,” Telluride ski resort website says. It hauls 900 people per hour, the equivalent of 18 50-passenger buses.
Whistler-Blackcomb has what Berry called the “Mack Daddy of them all.” The Peak 2 Peak Gondola is as popular for sightseers in the summer as for skiers and riders in the winter. The gondola stations are 2.73 miles apart. The ride time is 11 minutes. The cabins hold 24 people seated and four standing and have a capacity of 4,100 passengers per hour.
— Scott Condon
Aspen’s not the kind of town that easily admits a mistake, but it’s got to wonder if rejecting funding for rail in a community referendum in November 1999 was a mistake.
The traffic congestion is back, maybe not as bad as pre-recession levels of 2004-05, but it’s building.
Commuters stew in line trying to get to work on time in the morning. Residents choke on fumes from vehicles stretching from 7th Street to the Hotel Jerome on the worst afternoons. Tourists from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles discover they mistakenly thought they left traffic jams behind when they try to return to Aspen after a day of skiing Snowmass.
Up to 900 buses roll in and out of Aspen, past Castle Creek Bridge, on the busiest days of summer and winter. Add internal service in Aspen and the number hits 1,129 bus trips.
The bus system grew after the failure of rail at the polls and the public bus agency was finally super-sized in 2013. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) invested $46.2 million in the nation’s first rural Bus Rapid Transit system, which includes dedicated bus lanes, bigger and more comfortable buses, additional parking lots with snazzier stations and buses running every 15 minutes at the busiest times of the day.
It’s proving popular with riders. RFTA hauled 4,878,824 passengers in 2015, despite a mild 2014-15 winter. Nevertheless, personal vehicle use is also climbing now that the upper valley’s construction-real estate complex is cranked back up.
Aspen has avoided exceeding its annual average daily traffic ceiling for the last 22 years, noted city of Aspen Transportation Director John Krueger. The community goal is to remain below the 1993 traffic level. It’s done that with innovative steps, such as dedicated bus lanes. Even with its success, the bus system appears to be a Band-Aid on Aspen’s problem of growing traffic levels.
“There’s a point where the number of trips diminishes the quality of life” for Aspen residents, said Mayor Steve Skadron. “I’ve said from the council table, no more buses.”
NOT JUST A BUS GUY
Dan Blankenship is a bus guy. He took the helm of RFTA after it was well established but still an adolescent and he built it into a powerhouse. But he says the upper valley needs a multi-modal solution.
“Buses have worked well since 1975 but is that the kind of system the community wants for the next 40 or 50 years?” Blankenship asked.
Technically, RFTA could add service. At some point, the cost of operating the system will be more than some other form of mass transit, according to Blankenship, RFTA’s chief executive officer.
“It can work for a long, long time,” he said of the bus system. “We can run a lot more buses, but is it acceptable to the community?”
Burlingame resident Matthew Monaghan isn’t an elected official. He’s just an average guy trying to make a living. His laundry and dry cleaning business requires him to make deliveries in Aspen, so he acknowledges he is part of the problem. He’s quick to note that he isn’t an expert on transit issues, but he’s amazed that people find the current state of affairs acceptable. The rush hour traffic jams go against everything Aspen stands for, he said.
He knows some people are clamoring for a four-lane highway and a straight shot into town over a new bridge. He doesn’t see that as a viable option.
“I don’t think it’s about accommodating more cars,” Monaghan said. “It’s about reducing the number of cars.”
He also disagrees with Aspen’s apparent approach of making parking so difficult that “people will throw up their hands and get on the bus.”
He suggests creating a toll system on Highway 82 at the intersection of Highway 82 and the Intercept Lot. Aspen-area residents would get a free pass. Construction and service vehicles would get a pass for a specific purpose. Other commuters could purchase a pass or pull into the Intercept Lot to take mass transit into Aspen.
It would take cars off the road, improve the quality of life and raise funds for mass transit, Monaghan said. “Right now it’s essentially a free for all,” he said.
RAIL, AERIAL CONNECTORS, TRAMS
The good news is that a lot of people are thinking about solutions to Aspen’s traffic congestion. The bad news is any solution is expensive and many years off. That’s why Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman wants to dive into the details now.
“I would like to revisit the idea of non-rubber tired technology,” Newman said. “There’s newer technology then last time it was being looked at.”
RFTA’s capacity issues aren’t only a problem in Aspen, he noted. The park-and-ride lots RFTA constructed in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and El Jebel are at capacity just 2½ years after completion. We don’t want to pave the valley floor to accommodate more bus riders, Newman said.
He wants to use the Intercept Lot as a hub. Buses would deliver passengers to a rail line running between the intersection of Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road into Aspen, with stops at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and Buttermilk. The cost savings from a smaller RFTA could be applied to operating rail.
Toni Kronberg has supported the idea of an aerial connector for nearly 40 years. The original concept was an aerial gondola that whisked skiers from mountaintop to mountaintop. That’s an idea that’s caught on at other western ski resorts.
“It became a personal goal of mine to have Aspen and Snowmass Village live up to the standards they set for themselves as far as traffic and congestion,” she said.
Her vision has evolved. She’s now thinking more people-mover than skier-mover. The horizontal aerial connector would run from Aspen to the Intercept Lot, making the same stops as rail at the airport and Buttermilk.
She thinks it is the more politically achievable option. “I don’t think there will be any kind of rail going into Aspen. The public will never allow it,” Kronberg said.
The aerial connector could be constructed with minimal disruptions to Highway 82. Kronberg said modern systems operate with towers about the height of the training tower constructed by Mountain Rescue Aspen. The gondola would be relatively cheap to operate and service would be constant — no waiting for departures.
The Austrian company Doppelmayr/Garaventa is building innovative ropeway systems around the world, including several cities.
The public owns most of the right-of-way required for an aerial connector or light rail. Kronberg hopes RFTA, the city or Aspen Skiing Co. will take the lead on the idea and pursue an aerial connector.
The Aspen City Council’s top goal for 2016 is to, “Develop and implement a plan to reduce traffic within the next two years.”
Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan said transit is very much on Skico’s mind. The company’s executive team met this week with Blankenship to learn more about transit issues.
RFTA GEARS UP
RFTA recently hired a company called Parsons to conduct an Integrated Transportation Systems Plan. Jargon aside, the study will look at existing and looming transit issues throughout the region, engage the public on what to do, create a vision statement, explore mass transit alternatives and create a plan on how to pay for it.
It will be at least a two-year process, Blankenship said. The city of Aspen might want to pursue a parallel path to look at solutions specifically for the entrance, he said.
He, too, noted that some people want the problem “solved” with a four-lane highway into Aspen. He doesn’t think that will solve the problem in the long run. Traffic will increase once the capacity increases.
“It’s almost guaranteed that it’s not going to get better without a change,” Blankenship said. “I think there are a lot of options for moving people in and out of town from Brush Creek.”
One is a high-capacity electric bus. More passengers per bus means fewer bus trips.
Other alternatives include an aerial connector and the light rail that was thoroughly vetted in the late 1990s, he said.
Then there’s what he called the modern European tramway system, where tramcars get charged by sitting for a short time where there is a ground-based charging station along the tracks. Those systems avoid overhead wires. A short charge could provide enough power to get the tram to the Intercept Lot and back, Blankenship said. He said he is leaning toward that type of system.
Skadron doesn’t have a preferred alternative at this point, but he is eager to get the process moving to determine one.
“We can’t put this off anymore,” Skadron said.
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