Apr 23, 2023 - Business

A gondola? A train? Colorado struggles with mountain traffic

Data: Colorado Department of Transportation; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios
Data: Colorado Department of Transportation; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios

We survived rockslides, snow piles and car crashes in another traffic-choked winter on Interstate 70.

Yes, but: Now we have to suffer through summer weekends with even more construction and congestion on the highway that connects Denver to the mountains and serves as a major economic driver.

The intrigue: Utah, our western neighbor and outdoor competitor, is experiencing ski traffic jams and considering a novel solution: the world's longest gondola.

  • The 8-mile line would run from the edge of Salt Lake City up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird and Alta ski resorts, our colleague Kim Bojórquez at Axios Salt Lake City writes.
  • A proposed parking structure at the base would fit 2,500 cars,

Why it matters: If approved, it would become a major tourist draw and make Colorado's stressful trip to the mountain resorts look far less appetizing.

  • The concept also would put more pressure on our state's leaders to come up with a solution.

State of play: Colorado's I-70 problem remains top of mind, in part because officials estimated in 2007 the congestion costs about $1 billion in economic losses.

What they're saying: ​​"The reality is that eliminating traffic altogether during the peak periods is hard," Colorado transportation executive director Shoshana Lew told Axios Denver.

Zoom in: Instead, state transportation officials are taking a three-pronged approach to ease congestion with toll lanes, a $700 million reconstruction of Floyd Hill and more buses to mountain towns and resorts.

  • Ridership on the Bustang western route, resort-focused Snowstang and the smaller Pegasus shuttle is increasing and most popular in the winter months. "For a brand new service, we're seeing a lot of uptick and interest," Lew said.

The big picture: What Colorado and Utah are experiencing is emblematic across the West, where states are struggling to handle a crush of cars as population growth and a rise in outdoor recreation lure more visitors to the mountains.

  • The existing infrastructure — notably the Eisenhower-Johnson tunnel — can't handle the increased traffic, a problem we've known for years.

What to watch: The long-debated option of a high-speed train to the Colorado mountains is getting a renewed look.

  • The strategy behind the I-70 buses is designed to change traveler behavior to make a train more appealing.

The bottom line: "If people start getting used to the fact they don't have to drive … that will expand conversations about alternative ideas," Lew says.

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