Estes Park’s town Board of Trustees, staffers and citizens listen on Nov. 30 at the Estes Park Event Center as James Herlyck, Central Federal Lands’ highway division project manager, describes the findings of an environmental assessment of the mountain village’s proposed one-way downtown traffic loop. Dallas Heltzell/for BizWest

Green light for Estes’ downtown loop

Estes Park downtown loop mapESTES PARK — In a decision that reflected the often bitter debate that has gripped this mountain tourist village for several years, a sharply divided Estes Park Board of Trustees has voted to go ahead with a controversial $17 million plan to turn parts of three downtown streets into a one-way loop to ease summer traffic congestion and aid visitor access to Rocky Mountain National Park.

The final 4-3 vote on Nov. 30 followed two other 4-3 decisions — one to concur with an environmental assessment’s finding that the project would have minimal impact on a pair of city parks, and the other a refusal to submit the loop question to town voters early next year. It also followed nearly two hours of comments from 37 area residents who were as evenly divided as was the town board — except that opponents slightly outnumbered those in favor.

Mayor Todd Jirsa had campaigned for election last spring on a pledge to let the contentious issue be decided at the polls, and passionately defended his stance before an audience of more than 100 area residents at the cavernous Estes Park Event Center. The Board of Trustees meeting had been moved from its regular Town Hall venue to accommodate the expected crowd.

Jirsa pointed out that the loop plan did not fit conclusions reached by the town’s transportation “visioning committee,” adding that “I do believe it is prudent to put this to a vote of the people.”

Mayor Pro Tem Wendy Koenig questioned the worth of a project she said would only increase average travel time through town by 70 seconds.

However, Trustee Patrick Martchink countered that “no action means accepting failure,” and Trustee Ward Nelson added that “we can’t continue to shoot ourselves in the foot” because turning down the federal grant already approved for the project could make it difficult to win other such grants.

“You might not see money again for 15 or 20 years,” warned Johnny Olson, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Greeley-based Region 4 director. Rejecting the project, he said, “puts a strain on you guys to go after money in the future.”

Under the downtown loop plan, westbound U.S. Highway 36 traffic, toward the national park, will use the currently designated route — west along Elkhorn Avenue through the downtown core of tourist shops and restaurants, then south and west on Moraine Avenue — but eastbound U.S. 36 will be diverted at the Moraine Avenue curve through a new roundabout onto West Riverside Drive, across a new bridge over the Big Thompson River at Ivy Street, then north on East Riverside Drive to reconnect with Elkhorn east of downtown.

Loop proponents have pointed to ever-increasing summer traffic headaches as tourists head for a national park that has become the nation’s third most visited, while opponents have countered that the plan would disturb the peace of homes, rental cottages and the two city parks — Baldwin and Children’s — along Riverside as well as hurting businesses along East Elkhorn, the main downtown commercial street, by speeding tourists leaving the park out of town and away from its economic generators.

The tiny Donut Haus, which sits directly on the Moraine Avenue curve and has drawn early-morning crowds of locals and tourists alike for more than 40 years, would be among the businesses and homes razed to create the connection with West Riverside.

“It won’t be much wider than it is now, but because it’s a state highway, there are requirements for right-of-way,” town spokeswoman Kate Rusch told BizWest last year.  “CDOT would approach the owners and work to relocate them. CDOT will manage the process, and money would come out of the project funds for locating property they could move to and reimbursing for business lost if they have to close during relocation.”

The town in 2013 applied for $13 million in Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP) funding for the project because the project was seen as a way to improve access to the park, and federal officials had said the loop option was the only acceptable alternative to receive the FLAP money. A proposed downtown parking structure could further ease congestion, but FLAP won’t fund it.

The town already has $4.2 million in hand through a grant from CDOT’s Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP) program. The FLAP grant tentatively was awarded as well, but acceptance by the town was pending the final environmental assessment as part of a National Environmental Policy Act study, a process that’s triggered when a federal agency develops a proposal such as the loop to fund. The assessment was to study the impacts to the community if the one-way couplet plan were to move forward or if no action were taken.

The voluminous assessment was issued in July, and the public then had a month to submit comments and concerns. Because of the uncertainty over the project, said James Herlyck, project manager for the Central Federal Lands Highway Division, FLAP’s decision committee moved its funding for construction of the loop from 2018 to 2021 to allow construction of other FLAP-funded projects in the meantime. Herlyck said that change in the funding year won’t delay right-of-way acquisition or final design, which is to begin next year, and that the town could petition to have the funding date moved up.

The environmental assessment process concluded that the one-way couplet was the only alternative that can be pursued with current funding. CFLHD officials last year rejected Estes Park’s compromise proposal to consider funding a parking structure and transit facility as a potential alternative to the controversial downtown loop, concluding they wouldn’t significantly ease congestion.

Downtown Estes Park experienced 40 days of congested traffic a year in 2012, Herlyck said, but that could increase to 147 days by 2040 based on current population trends — but the loop could cut that to 27 days. Olson told trustees that the project would mean safer interaction between vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Although Rocky Mountain National Park has remained officially neutral on the loop, Darla Sidles, its new superintendent, said it might help ease congestion coming out of the park if an afternoon thunderstorm or a wildfire meant many tourists would be leaving the preserve at once.

The board’s disagreement about the loop was reflected during the lengthy public comment period.

Mark Igel, whose Taffy Shop has operated for more than 80 years near the busy corner of Elkhorn and Moraine and who had been a leader of the opposition responsible for the “No Action on the Loop” signs that dotted many downtown store windows, blasted the loop as “the most bungled project I’ve ever seen run. I’m shocked that we’re still here tonight.” Igel said the downtown area’s charm is what draws business.

“I don’t see how it’s going to fix congestion. It only redirects congestion,” added Celeste Fraser.  “If you make it all concrete instead of this warm-hearted, charming place, it’s going to be ruinous.”

Noted 38-year resident Maureen Marsh, “We’re not pretentious like Vail. We’re not a rhinestone-cowboy place like Aspen. We’re not a ski town — even when we had a ski area. We don’t need a paint job to make us something we’re not. We’re real — the only mountain resort town that can say that. When you think about a small town you want to come back to … you’ve got to be pretty careful about mucking it up.”

However, Steve Hampton told the meeting that “as much as we’d like to, we can’t keep a snow globe of Estes Park as it was,” and former mayor Bill Pinkham noted that “change is unsettling, but it will happen.” Elizabeth Fogarty, president and chief executive of Visit Estes Park, and Kirby Nelson-Hazelton of Estes Valley Partners for Commerce cited surveys showing strong support for the loop. Several others told trustees that they avoid downtown during summer because of the traffic.

If business really depended on cars driving by, said Todd Plummer, then lease rates on the Pearl Street pedestrian mall in Boulder “would be the cheapest in Colorado — because nobody drives by.”

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