Colorado's resort towns ponder mass transit with a view

Forget buses. Here, the public-transit system of the future won't even touch the ground. Its riders will glide along, suspended above evergreen spires, enjoying show-stopping views of the Continental Divide.

Banking on a swell of enthusiasm about gondolas, Winter Park, Colo., is moving toward building a system of suspended cable cars to connect the ski town to the mountainside. If all goes well, locals and visitors will be able to traverse the three miles without traffic or brimming parking lots.

OK, so maybe it's not how George Jetson would commute to work, but in Colorado's resort towns, it's the next-best thing. Along with Winter Park, Crested Butte, Aspen, and Breckenridge are all considering the Euro-style transit - and Telluride has had one since 1996.

To residents of these postcard-perfect mountain villages, the gondolas are more than just an easy way to get to the slopes or pick up a jug of milk. They're a unique way to handle the growing crush of cars without sacrificing an alpine ethic.

"The goal is to get more people to use public transportation," says Joan Christensen, a Winter Park spokeswoman. "It will be appealing. It will be like Disneyland - only better. Here we have these great views."

Winter Park - which hopes to have its system running within five years - has been kicking the idea around for more than a decade. But the recent $1.1 million purchase of land that will help connect the town to the resort shows that now the pieces are falling into place, says Mayor Nick Teverbaugh.

The land parcel sits next to a 400-space free parking garage, so resort officials expect it to be simple for drivers to leave their cars behind for a spectacular gondola ride. As an added incentive, the system will be free.

While financing for the estimated $18 million project remains uncertain, the concept is a local hit already. Business owners are anticipating more visitors coming downtown to dine and shop, and resort workers are eager for a convenient - and novel - commute.

"The only negative comment I've heard is, 'Why is it going to take so long?' " says Ms. Christensen.

Winter Park resident Michael LaPorte, a certified public accountant, confirms that viewpoint.

"We're long overdue for something like this," he says. "We don't have a good solid terminal from downtown to the ski area, and parking is becoming a big problem at the resort."

Even at this early stage, the gondola plan has succeeded in transporting his imagination.

"The proposed base is three blocks from my office," he says. "I can see myself taking the gondola over for a morning of skiing, and coming back to the office in the afternoon.

"This is what everyone who lives in a ski resort dreams of," he adds excitedly. "And summers will be fantastic. I can't even imagine how nice it will be."

A mass-transit system that people are actually excited about?

Now that's news.

From downtown, the gondola's proposed route will include a mountainside stop for skiers, then continue to the resort's base village, where development of an upscale condo and retail complex is now nearing completion.

Gondolas, a transportation mode that's taken off in Europe, have numerous advantages over buses, says Bob Woodbury, Winter Park's planning director.

They do more to reduce traffic and air pollution, and although initial costs are higher than for buses, operation and maintenance costs are lower. With a carrying capacity of 1,800 passengers per hour, gondolas are also far more efficient, he says.

And unlike buses, which typically circulate every 20 minutes, gondolas cycle continually, meaning that passengers only have to wait a few seconds for the next one.

For skiers, the advantages will be obvious as soon as they step into one of the enclosed gondola cars, says Mr. Woodbury.

"When you get on the gondola, you're skiing," he says. "When you're on a bus, you're on a bus."

In Winter Park, the plan made particular sense because the two-lane highway between the resort and town is bounded on one side by railroad tracks and on the other by National Forest.

"There's nowhere to widen the road," says Christensen. But at peak season, traffic is so thick that drivers sometimes endure 45 minutes of bumper-to-bumper gridlock in that three-mile stretch. "It's a total nail-biter," she says.

Although the resort now runs a shuttle system, expanding it didn't hold much appeal here.

"Buses remind you of going to school, but gondolas are fun," Christensen says, adding that "there's a reason every amusement park puts one in."

Mr. LaPorte, the public accountant, agrees.

"It's like a ride at a carnival," he says. "People get so excited about it, they're still talking about it at dinner. It's going to be phenomenal. Everyone is going to want to do it."

Nope, you can't say that about buses.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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