Mass transit may mean more people

Photo by Preston Utley/Vail Daily
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While many agree buses or a monorail might keep I-70 traffic jambs from getting much worse, others predict such a mass transit system would encourage more people to move to mountain towns like Vail because commuting to jobs on the Front Range would become easier.
Preston Utley/Vail Daily

Allen Best
May 16, 2005

"Build it, and they will come." That phrase has become a mantra since Kevin Costner's character began hearing it incessantly in his Iowa corn field in the movie 1989 movie "Field of Dreams."

That's clearly what happened with Interstate 70. Before the interstate, Steamboat Springs and Routt County were more populous and thriving than Vail and the Eagle Valley. Grand County, also bisected by Highway 40, was more happening than Summit County.

Interstate 70 has turned the tables, and then some. But what happens if a monorail or some other kind of mass transit is constructed along the freeway? Beware what you ask for, because you just may get it, warned Jeff Kullman, one of the state's regional transportation directors.

"If you build it, they will come. You guys live in the most desirable places in the world. If you make it possible to live in Summit County and work in Denver, they will," he said.

He might have also said Eagle County, one of the fastest growing places in the country. A quarter-century ago, just after the highway arrived, the population stood at less than 14,000 . Now it's estimated to be 50,000 and projected to hit 117,000 in another 25 years unless a lot more people begin commuting to the valley on a daily basis. Up to 33,000 commuters are forecast.

While there is wide-spread agreement among mountain residents that highway widening cannot continue indefinitely, agreement about mass transit is incomplete.

First, to justify mass transit, higher population densities would be required. In metro Denver, transit planners figure on upwards of 200 housing units per acre along the FasTracks corridor, while elsewhere transit planners generally figure that it takes about eight units per acre to make bus systems work efficiently.

Most subdivisions run three or four units per acre, while densities in Eagle County run much, much less an acre or less in many places.

Nothing wrong with Disney

So, do mountain residents really want the population densities that would be required to underwrite the costs of mass transit - and the populations that would come if mass transit is created?

Bill Wallace, a Summit County commissioner, thinks being a bedroom community isn't such a bad idea.

"If we could get more of our second homes to be permanent homes, I think it would make Summit County a healthier place to live, because people would be taking part in the community," Wallace said.

"Whether we are a bedroom community or a resort community, we will always have pressures on us for use of recreational forests. We are the closest national forest to the Front Range with recreational amenities.

"What I cannot accept is more cars, more pollution, and more places to park cars," he added.

In Eagle County, Commissioner Peter Runyon also does not see mass transit as a deal-breaker. He sees mass transit supplanting additional automobile traffic ,though not eliminating it.

"We need to move, not only as a state, but as a country, to alternative modes of transportation," he says. While a mass transit system along the I-70 corridor might seem prohibitively expensive, he points out that something like 11 percent of the nation's airport budget was absorbed for building of Denver International Airport.

A united I-70 corridor community allied with metropolitan Denver might dislodge similarly remarkable amount of federal money, he suggests.

It might well help make Eagle County a bedroom community, but the most important point is that the middle class is on its way out of Eagle County as it is. Runyon favors a very deliberate strategy to diversify the economy, perhaps by soliciting financial or medical sector industries.

At the same time, a mass transit can also stimulate the tourism economy, he says. Responding to dismissal of the proposed monorail by Colorado Gov. Bill Owens as a "Disney ride," Runyon says that the I-70 corridor is in the tourism business and so a Disney ride would be appropriate.

Remember the monorail

Leadville Mayor Bud Elliott, who owns the Timberline Motel, favors mass transit into the mountains. Leadville's summer economy is doing OK, he says, but the winter economy needs help, and he and other city council members believe Ski Cooper could get more customers if there was a mass transit link from Denver.

In Avon, town manager Larry Brooks is dubious that Eagle Valley residents really want to accept the sort of population densities that would be required to justify the investment needed for a major mass transit.

"It would require land uses that would fly in the face of what most of our constituents want," he says. What might make more sense, he suggests, is a light-rail system from Edwards to Vail.

It is often said that people in the Alpine countries have a wonderful train system that Coloradans should strive to imitate. However, Greg Hall, Vail's public works director, and Jim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Village Homeowners Association, who visited the Alps this year, report that trains are getting increasingly less use.

Arriving in St. Moritz, Vail's sister city in Switzerland, they found a 600-car parking garage. Throughout the Alps they found a remarkable system of tunnels, many of them burrowing deep through mountains, built to accommodate highway traffic.

Bill Jensen, the chief executive officer of Vail Mountain, foresees mass transit in 25 to 50 years, but not necessarily to Vail. What he also sees is more tunnels, and perhaps for trucks instead of mass transit.

As the Eagle Valley urbanizes in the next 30 to 40 years, mass transit might well make sense as the valley becomes more of a bedroom community.

As for mass transit technology, Summit County's Wallace, a former high school math teacher who has been involved in the monorail advocacy since the late 1990s, believes the technology is imminent. It is largely a matter of having money for research.

A magnetic-levitation system now being tested in Pittsburgh may have some answers of the I-70 corridor, he says.

Yes, he acknowledges, some technology goes afoul, the most prominent example being the baggage-handling system at the Denver airport. On the other hand, we have put people on the moon and we can talk with other people around the globe via our satellites while sitting at wireless computers in the middle of many mountain towns an extraordinary demonstration of technological prowess.

Vail, Colorado