A look at future of transportation around Vail and Colorado
DETAILS BEHIND HIGH-Speed Train:
Cost: $16 billion
Colorado Department of Transportation annual budget: $1 billion
Source: Amy Ford, Colorado Department of Transportation
VAIL — The mountains are calling, and people are answering. But how both visitors and locals will get to and from their beloved Colorado high country in the future is no easy answer.
When it comes to the future of transportation in Eagle County and the state, it’s all about the money.
Ambitious ideas of rail systems and high-speed trains bringing people to and from Denver, as well as around the county, have been studied by local and state organizations. It’s simply not financially feasible at this time, according to Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford.
The department conducted a technical feasibility analysis and found that yes, the technology currently exists for an advanced guideway system to operate in the high country. However, the estimated cost from the study done two years ago is $16 billion, Ford said. The department of transportation’s annual budget is $1 billion, Ford said.
What the state transportation department has done is establish a record of decision — developed throughout years and including input from state, local and federal agencies — which serves as a plan moving forward. Every new project must coincide with that document.
The overall goal is ultimately to expand Interstate 70 through the mountain corridor to three lanes each way, Ford said. In order to do that, the highway will be widened piece by piece, starting with high-traffic areas. Tunnels must be widened and interchanges must be upgraded. In some areas, projects keep cars off the highway, such as the new underpass beneath the highway to link Vail’s frontage roads. For all, funding must be secured, piece by piece from state, federal and local sources.
Transportation planners are aiming to adjust the mountain corridor in ways that are both respectful of aesthetics and the environment, but the department also knows the importance of moving people from place to place. The projected cost of the roadway project is $3 billion to $4 billion, Ford said, compared to the $16 billion for the train.
“Nobody has the answer,” said Mike Rose, transportation manager for the town of Vail, “and very few have the checkbook.”
The department of transportation will continue to keep the advanced guideway system on its radar because it’s part of the official record of decision, Ford said, but it’s also building a focus on the existing technology.
The Bustang is in its infancy still, but already there have been strides taken by the department’s new regional bus system. Bustang currently has three routes to and from Denver, including one to Glenwood Springs with a stop at the Vail Village Transportation Center. A ride between Denver Union Station and Vail costs $17. The service has also expanded to seven days a week.
As of now, the bus makes two stops at the transportation center in Vail per day, once on its way from Glenwood Springs and again on its way from Denver.
“The concept of transit in the corridor is not just solely the train,” Ford said. While that is a very keen focus for folks, the Bustang service has been quite successful.”
The success of Bustang doesn’t happen without an infrastructure in place for town buses such as Vail’s. The ability to connect transit to transit makes it possible for someone to leave their home in Eagle County and take a bus to Vail’s transportation center, hop off and get right on a Bustang headed to Denver, all without getting behind the wheel of a car.
The idea is to get more buses with more frequent stops to make it easier and more reliable for people in the Eagle County to use public transportation, Rose said.
“It’s simple,” Rose said of bus transportation in the county. “The town of Vail and Eagle County have gone out of their way to make the bus schedules mesh.”
“We as a community need to do everything we can to discourage cars,” said Harry Frampton, of East West Partners. “There’s no simple magic bullet, but we need to discourage it. What I know about bus transportation is that frequency matters. If you increase frequency, you get an increase in ridership. The more we can make public transportation and discourage cars, the better.”
The concept of sustainability is also moving to the forefront with transportation across the county. More and more electric cars are being registered in the county, and a public charging station infrastructure has been established from Vail to Eagle.
Self-driving cars are still in their developmental stages, but complications with weather and extreme conditions in the high country might further hinder the technology moving to Eagle County.
“Unless there’s some technological jump to where there’s an electrical computer system that is 100 percent correct 100 percent of the time, I think there’s going to have to be the need for human intervention,” Rose said.
Which brings up the questions of customer support. Can a driver-less car or bus answer questions from guests or help give directions? In the foreseeable future in the high country, public transportation will continue to have the human element that we are used to, Rose said.
Parking is a constant issue the valley faces moving forward. With population and visitation growth, parking will need to fulfill the demand more and more vehicles coming to local resorts.
“One thing we aren’t going to be able to make more of or change is parking,” Rose said.
The parking issue makes the need for increased public transit even more important moving forward, Rose said. There’s simply no land in Vail to add enough capacity for more vehicle parking.
Uber is growing here in the high country and becoming more of a reliable way of transportation. The lift service has quadrupled its mountain ridership since its recruiting efforts that began in November, said Jaime Moore, of Uber.
“People that live in and visit the mountains are excited about having access to affordable, reliable rides,” she said via email.
Still, there aren’t many rides to be found most days.
The county’s multi-modal trails system is another way to get cars off the highways.
“The trails are there, to a great extent,” said Chris Lubbers of Eagle County’s ECO Transit department. “The town of Vail had an elaborate trails system before Eagle County Trails really even got started.”
Eagle County Trails has since added to the extensive trails system. There are still some gaps and holes in the system — about 19 miles of trails, but Lubbers said eventually it could be possible to walk or bike from Glenwood Canyon to East Vail.
As population increases and the community grows, it will become necessary to use different forms of transportation and routes because parking will not be able to accommodate future population growth, Lubbers said.
Connecting trails and routes have been growing across the county and will continue to expand for non-car transportation, “which could include walking but most likely bikes and whatever else gets invented,” Lubbers said.
A popular and growing way of transportation across the country is bike shares. Denver has them and you can rent a bike from a rack on the street and then take it to a rack near your destination. It’s an easy way to get around and very popular in Denver, Lubbers said.
The towns of Vail and Avon could have bike shares soon, it just depends on who takes the steps to bring them here.
“It really could be anyone,” Lubbers said. “It has been traditionally separate agencies and nonprofits. There’s no reason a municipality can’t create and maintain one.”
Reporter Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2922 and email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.