Many business owners such as this restaurant on Estes Park have mobilized to protest the “Loop” project that would mean vehicles leaving Rocky Mountain National Park would not pass by their eateries and shops. Special to BizWest

Traffic plan throws Estes Park for a Loop Proposal to reroute traffic in iconic tourist town sparks controversy

estesHwy34_gpxESTES PARK — A desire to escape scorching summer temperatures makes the cooler mountain air of Estes Park an ideal alternative. Once visitors from the lowlands arrive, however, traffic gridlock in the tourist town’s constricted business district often leaves them hot under the collar.

Even that aggravation, however, pales in comparison with the heated debate over a $17.2 million plan to help ease the congestion that has pitted the tourism-dependent town’s leaders against many downtown business owners — and will come to a head later this summer when results of a federal environmental assessment are released.

Mention “the Loop” to locals, and everyone has an opinion — a forceful one.

“It’s become a very hot topic,” said town spokeswoman Kate Rusch. “A lot of people are concerned about it, how it might change downtown. But a lot of people are in support because it’s such a tight space. We don’t have many options. This one has the least impact to the downtown.”

“Traffic is a big thing,” said Town Administrator Frank Lancaster. “When you can take half the cars off Elkhorn, that’s a big deal. It certainly would make it a more pleasant experience for drivers, pedestrians and businesses.”

Not so, said Toni Miller and Mark Igel, whose 80-year-old businesses sit at the intersection of Elkhorn and Moraine avenues, downtown’s hot corner.

“If the town Board would stand in my store with no input from me, they’d have a different view,” said Miller, whose family founded the iconic Miller’s Indian Village gift shop. “I see this as a major, inappropriate, unwarranted partial solution that either isn’t a problem or is a short-term problem.”

Added Igel, owner of The Taffy Shop, which, like many other stores along Elkhorn, sports a “We support no action on the Loop” sign in its window, “People have asked, ‘When do I lay down in front of the bulldozer?’ ”

On the surface, the idea is a simple one.

Estes a ‘double gateway’

Estes Park serves as a “double gateway” to Rocky Mountain National Park, which attracts more than 3 million visitors a year. One entrance is on U.S. Highway 34, and a bypass north of downtown allows quick access to that entrance gate. But the park’s main entrance and headquarters is on U.S. Highway 36. To get there, traffic from the east is routed onto Elkhorn and its tourist-targeted gift, apparel and candy shops, then must turn left on Moraine in front of Indian Village, go south a few hundred yards and then curve westward along the Big Thompson River toward the park entrance. Traffic headed out of the park must travel the same route.


About the plan

 Project website: www.downtownestesloop.com

 Opponents’ website: www.estestruth.org


The Estes Park Loop proposal would create a “one-way couplet,” town officials say. Westbound traffic, toward the park, would use the current route, but eastbound U.S. 36 would be diverted at the Moraine Avenue curve onto West Riverside Drive, across a new bridge over the Big Thompson at Ivy Street, then north on East Riverside to reconnect with Elkhorn east of the downtown core.

“This came out of a lot of studies over the decades,” Rusch said. “A study back in the ’70s discussed expanding Riverside to handle more traffic. A 2003 study recommended this concept as well, commissioned by CDOT: the Estes Valley Transportation Alternatives study.” Next came the “Roadmap to the Future” report produced in 2012 by the town’s Transportation Visioning Committee. “Then in 2013, the feds put out FLAP (Federal Lands Access Program) funds for the first time, and we realized we had the funds to do it.”

After many public hearings, open houses and professional analysis, the Estes Park Town Board voted 4-2 on April 15 to allow the assessment to be completed. Officials estimate that the draft will be available in August. More opportunities for public comment will follow before a final decision is made to move forward with the project or stop it altogether, officials say.

Since one of the project’s goals is to speed access to and from the national park, the project is being funded by a $13 million FLAP grant. The rest would come from a $4.2 million Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP) grant through the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“CDOT had paid us that much money to take over a portion of West Elkhorn,” Rusch said, “but the town is holding that to put towards the Loop project if it proceeds.”

The federal portion of the funding requires completion of the impact study as dictated by the National Environmental Policy Act,” Rusch said, adding that the study is considering two alternatives: the Loop or no action.

“This will get traffic through quicker and should result in a much better environment downtown,” Lancaster said.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Miller countered. “The plan doesn’t take into consideration the years of construction. I have heard estimates of 3 to 5 years or more. That’s going to be very hard. The average customer driving through is not going to enjoy being caught in that construction.

“Once we’ve gone through that and been greatly impacted commercially, what do they do about the businesses and homes they’ve taken away from people? How do they make the homes on Riverside, how do they make those people whole again? They can’t. The Donut Haus would be completely gone. How do they make them whole again? They don’t.”

Tourist traffic creeps along Elkhorn Avenue in downtown Estes Park. A proposal would convert the stretch into a one-way street, with vehicles traveling the other direction diverted onto another street that wouldn’t pass by the downtown businesses.
Tourist traffic creeps along Elkhorn Avenue in downtown Estes Park. A proposal would convert the stretch into a one-way street, with vehicles traveling the other direction diverted onto another street that wouldn’t pass by the downtown businesses. Special to BizWest

Donut Haus would be razed

The tiny Donut Haus, which sits directly on the Moraine Avenue curve and has drawn early-morning crowds of locals and tourists alike for 40 years, would be 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,” Rusch said. “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.”

In an open letter from the Estes Park Board of Realtors circulated earlier this month, Eric Blackhurst wrote that “the project funded through the Federal Lands Access Project has already made it difficult to sell and use property along its projected route. The completion of the project would require government acquisition of property that eliminates housing, decreases green space and degrades the quality of life for those residing along this newly proposed state highway. This project does not protect the right of real property ownership, nor the opportunity to enjoy it.”

FEMA remapping flood plain

Another issue facing the town, Rusch said, is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in the process of remapping the floodplain in the wake of the 2013 floods.

“The new highway alignment would cross the (Big Thompson and Fall) rivers in three locations,” Rusch said. Rebuilding the bridges is “an expense that we wouldn’t have other funding for” but the FLAP money would cover if the Loop project proceeds.

Many business owners along Elkhorn say they fear tourists coming down from the park in the evening won’t want to take the trouble to loop back west into downtown to shop or dine.

“If I were the customer and I were driving around the Loop and looking for a parking place so I can shop, I’m not going to go around a second time,” Miller said.

Parking structure could help

Proponent Charley Dickey, owner of P&L Business Consulting, agreed that with the Loop plan, “they’re almost routed out of town,” but proposed a solution: a parking structure in the middle, accessible from either direction. “That would be a huge, huge help with some of the negative aspects of the Loop,” he said.

Diane Muno, who owns three businesses on Elkhorn: the White Orchid women’s apparel store, The Christmas Shoppe and Spruce House, also favors the Loop.

“My fear is that no action is detrimental for our community,” she said. “I assume that should we move forward, all businesses will be impacted based on construction – but no action is going to have the same impact when it comes to flood mitigation and economic impact.

“I can see the points on both sides of the argument,” she said. “Drive-by traffic has value – but pedestrian traffic has more value. The more we can drive visitors out of their cars will give our businesses more traffic than a drive-by.”

Dickey agreed. “Most of these business people are used to people driving by their stores,” he said. “But it’s the windows of the stores that draw tourists in – as they walk by.”

If the Loop plan were scrapped, Igel said, several ideas could be implemented to ease traffic headaches.

“If the problem is congestion, why haven’t we done anything about that? Community Service Officers have stepped into traffic and moved it without congestion,” he said. “That’s real-time human monitoring. But we’re down from 11 or 12 15 years ago to four summer officers.

“Traffic lights don’t work together; we could fix that. We have other things at our fingertips. Signs, striping, lights could fix this tomorrow.”

If the project moves forward, Rusch said, “we’d have the design and engineering phase, then acquiring the right-of-way, then construction. Tentatively, construction could take place in 2017.

“We’re just basically doing our due diligence to see if it’s something we should pursue.”

Brooke Burnham, director of communications and public relations for Visit Estes Park, said that organization “did take a position for continuing the process so we could make an educated decision down the road. We do believe in the process, and we think we’ll gain a lot of knowledge. Business prosperity and access to the national park benefits everyone.”

Lancaster has said the town, which was laid out in the 1800s, needs to change with the times to deal with 21st-century traffic.

“People who oppose the Loop do want change,” argued Igel, “but our life is on the line with this store. We have mortgaged our children’s middle names. It’s very hard to fight government.”

Dallas Heltzell can be reached at 970-232-3149, 303-630-1962 or dheltzell@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DallasHeltzell.

estesHwy34_gpxESTES PARK — A desire to escape scorching summer temperatures makes the cooler mountain air of Estes Park an ideal alternative. Once visitors from the lowlands arrive, however, traffic gridlock in the tourist town’s constricted business district often leaves them hot under the collar.

Even that aggravation, however, pales in comparison with the heated debate over a $17.2 million plan to help ease the congestion that has pitted the tourism-dependent town’s leaders against many downtown business owners — and will come to a head later this summer when results of a federal environmental assessment are released.

Mention “the Loop” to locals, and everyone has an opinion — a forceful one.

“It’s become a very hot topic,” said town spokeswoman Kate Rusch. “A lot of people are concerned about it, how it might change downtown. But a lot of people are in support because it’s such a tight space. We don’t have many options. This one has the least impact to the downtown.”

“Traffic is a big thing,” said Town Administrator Frank Lancaster. “When you can take half the cars off Elkhorn, that’s a big deal. It certainly would make it a more pleasant experience for drivers, pedestrians and businesses.”

Not so, said Toni Miller and Mark Igel, whose 80-year-old businesses sit at the intersection of Elkhorn and Moraine avenues, downtown’s hot corner.