European-style Ski Trains Eyed as Option for Easing I-70 Gridlock

Ludwig Kurz, former Vail mayor and current director of community relations for nearby Beaver Creek resort, would like to see people in ski boots and goggles wandering the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver.As someone who grew up in Salzburg, Austria, Kurz is not looking to outfit Denver’s homeless in ski gear as a winter fashion statement, nor does he want to put in snowmaking on the mall to keep Front Range snow riders down in the city. Rather, Kurz wants them queuing up for some sort of mountain-bound ski train along the Interstate 70 corridor.

“It’s funny to walk along the streets in Innsbruck any day of the winter and see people with ski boots on and skis over their shoulders, and you think, ‘Where the heck are they going?'” Kurz said of the city of about 120,000 in western Austria. “It would be like walking down the 16th Street Mall and seeing someone with goggles on and fully ready to ski. In Europe you would think, ‘Of course, he’s going skiing.'”

Congestion on I-70 and soaring fuel costs have conspired to give renewed impetus for some sort of mass transit system along the corridor that connects Denver and the entire Front Range to Colorado’s most popular mountain resorts. Previous efforts to pursue mountain rail in the state have been shot down by voters.

But on a continent where gas costs more than $7 a gallon in some places — and up to 70 percent of that goes to taxes that in many cases are then pumped into mass transit — driving to the slopes in Europe is increasingly a luxury that many can’t afford, or prefer, Kurz said.

“In Europe, the upper crust of the resorts like Lech [Austria] and St. Moritz [Switzerland] draw the clientele that is used to the Mercedes and the BMW and that’s how they arrive, and some of the younger, more vibrant resorts you get more people coming by train.”

And in Europe, train service to major mountain resorts is more than merely an option. It’s marketed as a greener, more efficient, more relaxing way than flying to get from major metropolitan areas to world-famous ski resorts such as St. Anton, Austria; Courchevel, France; and Davos, Switzlerland.

Rail Europe even offers its Eurostar ski train between London and France starting as low as 55 pounds (about $108 roundtrip). Using the Chunnel, a trip that used to take eight hours by boat and train has been sliced to a little over three hours, and the Eurostar also offers sleeper cars.

“In Europe, a lot of the people who arrive by train are used to having a beer or two or six and they can keep their [driver’s] license that way,”  Kurz said.

He added that there is a major cultural impediment to train travel in the United States.

“The major difference between Europe and here is that that Europeans have grown up with trains and we haven’t necessarily grown up with trains here. Beyond that, it obviously works very well in Europe,” Kurz said.

He said he hopes there is more political will for a rail solution in Colorado than the last time the question was put to voters in 2001.

“If you look at what has happened in the last seven or eight years, such as the obvious congestion on I-70 — although it’s not all skier traffic — the oil prices, the cost of getting up here, the congestion and the aggravation alone that is caused by some of these long rides, we will have more and more people say there has to be a solution, and it looks like it would have to be in mass transit,” Kurz said.

The Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, a coalition of public and private stakeholders along the I-70 corridor, is in the process of launching a study to look at the type of trains, costs, possible funding mechanisms and potential ridership for high-speed rail along I-70 and I-25. And a recent verbal agreement between the Colorado Department of Transportation and key stakeholders put a rail solution back on the front burner.

Jim Merlino, a political strategist for Struble Eichenbaum Media Consultants, worked on the unsuccessful 2001 ballot initiative that asked state voters to approve $50 million for a pilot project in Pueblo to test high-speed train technology for a mountain monorail. He said times have definitely changed.

“With what’s happening to diesel and gas prices, people are reframing how they think about transportation, and I-70 is going to fall into that new framework,” Merlino said. “The technology is changing all the time. Things that were wildly expensive in 2001 are getting less expensive all the time, and the cost factor of doing nothing keeps rising as well because of the cost of fuel.”

Merlino said that 2001 effort failed because it was difficult to convince voters in other parts of the state to back something that didn’t impact them on a daily basis, but now he thinks voters might take a broader view of the potential negative economic impacts of gridlock along the state’s main east-west interstate.

“There are leaders in both parties that are looking for a solution,” Merlino said of the current political environment. “There’s a chance for some very creative solutions on a bipartisan basis. The old coalitions are sort of reforming, and all of that is connected to this broad rise in energy costs.”

For local jurisdictions along the corridor, the do-nothing plan for I-70 — or keeping it four lanes in order to limit growth in the mountains, as some critics have advocated – is simply not viable.

“What’s the option to ‘bringing more growth and visitors’? Closing I-70? I didn’t know that was an option,” said Avon Town Councilwoman Tamra Underwood. “The point is, do we want the same people [who are already coming], and new, transient people — none of whom are riff-raff — continually running around the valley on obsolete, individualized, rubber-tired, fossil-fuel-guzzling, carbon-footprint-growing vehicles, or mass transit?”

Underwood’s council has pushed through a new pedestrian mall in downtown Avon, at the base of Beaver Creek ski area, that connects to a new public transit center currently served only by buses, vans and a new gondola that travels on up the mountain to the ski area.

The land for the transit center was donated by the nearby Westin Hotel, and is purposefully situated along the dormant Union Pacific train tracks in the hopes that mass transit will someday run to the Eagle County Airport.

“Whatever [rail] technology is chosen in the future, and there should be quite a few options when we really look, clearly the right-of-way for that technology needs to be set aside now,” Underwood said. “The congested I-70 corridor needs a sustainable solution.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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