Skiers, snowboarders to travel free | VailDaily.com

Skiers, snowboarders to travel free

Stephen Lloyd Wood

Daily file photoStarting Jan. 10 and running through March 27, most of Eagle County's buses, operated by ECO Transit, will not charge fares on Saturdays between 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. It's part of a joint effort by the county, Vail Resorts and the town of Vail to help alleviate high-season parking problems at Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts.

Another strategy is in the works aimed at reducing the number of cars parked along the roads to Vail and Beaver Creek mountains this winter.

Starting Jan. 10, a Saturday, and continuing every Saturday through March 27, many buses operated by Eagle County’s ECO Transit will transport passengers free of charge as part of the Free Fare Saturdays Special program, meaning locals – and visitors – throughout the valley can get to the slopes of Vail and Beaver Creek without spending a dime/

“I’d love to see this become a success,” says Bill Jensen, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain. “Even just 50 cars at each resort would be considered a success.”

Vail Resorts has committed $10,000 to this winter’s pilot program, making up for about half of the revenues the county’s estimates it will lose by not charging the regular $2 and $3 fares; Eagle County will absorb the rest. While many details remain to be worked out, Jensen says, the ski company also will be paying most of the costs of advertising the program, as well as donating prizes, from free lunches at its on-mountain restaurants to free season passes. Every rider also has the chance to win a $20 gift certificate from Vail Resorts.

Every passenger who rides the free bus can enter a drawing for a $20 Mountain Money gift certificate from Vail Resorts. Mountain Money is the on-mountain currency that can be used at any on-mountain restaurant. Every Saturday for the duration of the program, 10 weekly winners will be randomly chosen. At the end of the season all riders who completed an entry form will be eligible for a grand prize drawing of a Vail Resorts Value Pass valid for the 2004-05 season.

Program information and prize entry forms will be printed in the Vail Daily Wednesdays and Fridays. Upon boarding the buses, passengers can drop the completed prize entry form or a business card with the bus drivers.

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“Not just rhetoric’

“It’s important to recognize Vail Resorts for stepping up the plate financially. They didn’t have to do that,” says Vail Town Councilman Ludwig Kurz, who represents the town on ECO’s board of directors. “It shows this is not just rhetoric, but that they really do want to help.”

Over the past few winters – especially on Saturday’s during the high season – Vail’s two parking garages have been filled to capacity, turning the South Frontage Road into a veritable parking lot for cars driven by skiers and snowboarders from elsewhere in Eagle County and from the Front Range. The situation has occurred numerous times in Avon, too, as Beaver Creek’s two parking lots become overwhelmed, forcing people to park on U.S. Highway 6 – sometimes as far as half a mile away.

“Free Fare Saturdays Special should help alleviate those problems, which are both a safety issue and a perception issue,” says Kurz.

Fares will not be charged on 10 Saturdays between 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. on four ECO Transit routes: Highway 6; Dotsero-Vail; Minturn-Vail; and Beaver Creek-Vail. In fact, the only route not part of the program will be Leadville-Vail, used mostly by commuters.

Residents living in Singletree and Homestead can take advantage of ECO’s free park-and-ride at Miller Ranch Road, with the First Track’s Express leaving the parking area at 7:30 a.m., arriving Lionshead and Vail Village before 8 a.m. ECO buses will return to Miller Ranch leaving the Vail Village Transportation Center at 4:32 p.m. and 5:32 p.m.

Avon residents can catch one of 10 ECO buses expressing to Vail and Beaver Creek between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Other free park-and-ride opportunities include the newly constructed U.S. Forest Service parking area in Minturn, Eagle Valley High School, and in Eagle next to the Eagle Diner. These parking facilities provide passengers with a convenient place to pick up an ECO bus to the ski areas. Details about return times still are being worked out.

Simple math

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure the savings for an individual or a group. The standard one-way fare on an ECO bus is $2, or $3 for express service. Round-trip, that’s $4 to $6 dollars. For a group of three, that’s $12 to $18.

Vail Resorts estimates skiers and snowboarders can save more than $13 on gas and parking by riding the free buses on Saturdays. Ironically, until the town of Vail hiked its rates for parking in its parking garages this season– now $16 for six hours or longer – it used to cost as much or more to ride the bus than to drive – hardly a motivation to use public transportation. Now, at least on select Saturdays this winter, the incentive truly is there to ride the bus.

“It’s a trial program we anticipate will be very successful,” says ECO’s director, Harry Taylor. “If we can reduce the number of vehicles travelling from downvalley to ski, we’ll all benefit.”

“High hopes’

Taylor said he expects there to be long-term benefits, too, as more and more people learn about the bus system and “are converted to using public transportation” even when it’s not free.

“We have high hopes for this,” Taylor said.

Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi helped spearhead Free Fare Saturdays Special. He says it’s a model for how the private and public sectors can “work together.”

“This is an effort by everyone to make it easier for locals to take advantage of their proximity to skiing and snowboarding and to help alleviate the parking problem we’ve had over the past few years,” Menconi says.

Other Vail parking scenarios

Other efforts to solve Vail’s parking woes, at least this winter, include adding 160 new spaces at the West Day Lot, west of the Marriott Mountain Resort and Spa in Lionshead, to the public parking inventory. Ski company employees who used to park there now can park across the Frontage Road at the company’s maintenance yard, which has been retrofitted for that purpose.

Skiers and snowboarders also can park free in various locations throughout town, such as along stretches of the North Frontage Road in West Vail, Red Sandstone Park, Stephens Park and the trail heads at Spraddle Creek and the East Vail interchange.

Most of those areas are near bus stops.

This fall, too, the Town Council made way for more free parking – and more parking spaces in general – in the parking structures by allowing an hour and a half of free parking in the Vail Village and Lionshead parking garages, as well as free parking in both garages for motorists arriving after 3 p.m.

Paid parking, meanwhile, costs more this season, with regular, hourly parking rates increasing significantly – double in some cases – at the Lionshead and Vail Village parking garages. For example, the rate for parking all day – from six to 24 hours – has risen from $13 to $16.