Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic year and leading up to the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championship season, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich ski racing history and heritage through stories about its ski heroes and legends.
Owners and operators of some of the state’s smaller ski areas say that even if they don’t host events, a successful Winter Olympic bid in 2026 would be good for Colorado’s ski industry, especially if it fixes the Interstate 70 bottleneck between Denver and the mountains.
“(The Olympics) may be a way to get that high-speed rail or whatever it is on I-70 if you have to move Olympic crowds back and forth, because you definitely can’t do it on our roads the way they are,” said Tom Jankovsky, general manager of Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs.
Jankovsky, a member of the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame, said that even Sunlight, 170 miles from Denver, is adversely impacted by the I-70 traffic snarls on weekends.
“Our weekend customers in January and February are from the Front Range, and it’s no doubt (I-70) affects us,” Jankovsky said. “They’re not coming up for day skiing. They’re coming up for the weekend. But they still have to get back to work, and that Sunday afternoon traffic is horrendous.”
Vail Mayor Andy Daly, also a Hall of Fame member, has long been a supporter of major ski-racing events in the Vail Valley. He too sees the Olympics as a potential boon for Colorado’s ski industry and a possible way to fix the I-70 problem. But he thinks short-term fixes needs to be implemented long before the earliest opportunity to host the Games in 2026.
“The Olympics, the potential for 2026, that would be a great time to get a project like (high-speed rail) initiated, but between now and then, the more traditional upgrades, with truck lanes and maybe some expansion of lanes that may involve tolling, that’s the direction we need to head more immediately,” Daly said.
Daly also thinks the state needs to work with the trucking industry to curtail semi traffic in general and the use of double tractor trailers in particular on Vail Pass and the Eisenhower Tunnel during peak weekend skier-traffic periods, especially when it’s snowing.
Enforcing Traction Checks
And commercial and private vehicles should possibly be subject to traction checks for snow tires and chains in adverse weather, Daly said, noting that used to be the norm on U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass before I-70 was built in the 1970s. Fines like the $1,000 penalty for unchained semis ought to be considered for private vehicles that cause highway closures, he added.
While Daly spent most of his career in operations and then as an executive for ski resorts right along the I-70 corridor (Copper Mountain and Vail), he’s now a part owner of Powderhorn on the Grand Mesa near Grand Junction, 230 miles west of Denver. He said the I-70 mess is hurting the whole state.
“Colorado has gained a reputation as being a progressive state,” Daly said. “Our employment numbers are among the top 10 in the nation right now. There’s a vibrancy and there’s an energy, and part of that is tied to the quality of life.
“Well, right now I-70 is really impacting the quality of life. It’s not only in the wintertime, although that’s obviously the most unpredictable, but Sunday afternoons in the summertime are actually a big issue now, and the traffic volumes are actually higher then.”
Can I-70 be fixed?
Jerry Groswold, a Hall of Fame member who headed up Winter Park Resort for 22 years and was on the Denver Olympic Committee that landed the 1976 Games, said he hopes the Olympics never come to Colorado if they cost the $50 billion Russia spent for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
“That is unconscionable. Think of what you could do for $50 billion in the state of Colorado,” Groswold said. “Maybe you could fix I-70, but I’m not sure I-70 can be fixed.”
Groswold, whose office for years was within earshot of the Moffat Tunnel and the arrival of the now-defunct Winter Park Ski Train, said he doesn’t even think pumping a state-estimated $16.5 billion into high-speed mass transit along I-70 would do much to ease the weekly bottleneck.
“I’m not sure you solve it with rail,” he said. “A train will only carry so many people. You get 800 people on a train and you’ve probably eliminated 400 cars. That’s not an awful lot.”
The only solution, Groswold said, might be one that former political strategist and Colorado Ski Country USA chief John Frew floated years ago.
“He basically said you can only cram so much through a needle’s eye,” Groswold said. “I-70 is already full. You expand it and it’s still going to be full. Give up on it and go find a new route. Go to the south or go to the north and build a new access route to the Western Slope.”
In fact, where the Ski Train used to cut under the Continental Divide at Rollinsville southwest of Boulder is a manageable 3-percent grade, Groswold said, or a second highway could be built through South Park and over either Hoosier Pass or Fremont Pass into Summit County.
Regardless of when — or if — the I-70 bottleneck is solved, Groswold said the state should go after the Olympics if they can turn a profit and produce lasting infrastructure. The International Olympic Committee won’t hold a grudge against Colorado voters for rejecting the 1976 Games for financial reasons, he added.
Groswold, who served as a consultant to smaller ski areas after leaving Winter Park, agrees the state’s ski industry as a whole — even the smaller resorts — would benefit from the Olympics. And he adds that the state’s small ski areas are critical as feeders for the larger resorts.
“If you don’t think people can learn well on small hills, take a look at Olympic teams and pay attention to the number of kids who come from, for instance, a place like Buck Hill (in Minnesota, where Lindsey Vonn learned),” Groswold said. “Look at the alpine skiers that came out of Steamboat. They learned on Howelsen Hill.”
David O. Williams wrote this story for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum. The museum is located on the third level of the Vail Village parking structure adjacent to Vail Village Covered Bridge. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 970-476-1876 or go to www.skimuseum.net.