Potential Hanging Lake limits complicate shuttle idea
The popular but often overused Hanging Lake area in Glenwood Canyon may have to be managed on a capacity basis, which could impact the financial viability of running a shuttle service into the area.
That was one of the questions Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board members had as they weighed the possibility of operating such a shuttle at their monthly meeting Thursday in Carbondale.
In any case, RFTA board members said they’re willing to continue the discussion about contracting with the U.S. Forest Service, state and federal transportation officials and other stakeholders to run a shuttle from Glenwood Springs to the popular hiking area in Glenwood Canyon starting in 2018.
The shuttle is being considered as a way to cut down on overuse of the Hanging Lake area and constant overcrowding at the trailhead parking lot on busy summer days.
The Forest Service is weighing the options of contracting with RFTA, a private tour bus operator, or a combination of both, to operate a shuttle.
A key concern for RFTA is to come up with a fee-based system that will cover the estimated $700,000 to a little over $1 million in annual operation and capital expenses.
The Maroon Bells shuttle is the closest thing RFTA has to compare the potential new service to. But the two situations are different.
Maroon Bells is demand-based, with limits on site-based parking but no limits currently on how many people per day can visit the popular area featuring multiple trails and destinations. As a result, RFTA is able to adjust for daily demands.
Hanging Lake, as a single trailhead destination, may be handled differently through a fixed reservation system for both parking and bus riders, Aaron Mayville, district ranger for the White River National Forest Eagle-Holy Cross District, indicated during a presentation to the RFTA board.
“We need to find a sweet spot between environmental sensitivity and business viability,” Mayville said.
Based on a preliminary model of 780 hikers per day, a fare of between $7 and $10 could cover the costs, Mayville and Ben Rasmussen with the U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, said during their presentation.
RFTA is just one of many agencies involved in exploring possible solutions to parking conflicts and overuse of the Hanging Lake area.
A public process to develop a management plan for the area is expected to begin this spring or summer to evaluate solutions to be implemented in 2018.
Hanging Lake saw 137,000 visitors in 2016, up from about 133,000 the prior year, and just 95,000 in 2014, according to White River National Forest data.
The Forest Service currently manages parking four days a week during high-use times in summer, erecting a gate at the Interstate 70 exit leading to the 112-space parking lot when it is at capacity. In the past, illegal parking has caused safety problems, making it hard for emergency vehicles to reach the site if someone gets hurt on the trail.
In 2013, the Forest Service engaged U.S. Department of Transportation’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to study long-term solutions.
Recent user surveys indicated that 58 percent of respondents said they would “likely” take a shuttle from Glenwood Springs to get to the Hanging Lake trailhead, while 21 percent were “somewhat likely” and 17 percent were “not likely” to use a shuttle.
But the Forest Service and RFTA’s experience with the Maroon Bells shuttle suggests that if a destination is popular enough, people will use a fee-based shuttle.
RFTA last year increased the fee to take the bus to Maroon Bells by $2, to $8 for adults and $6 for seniors and children age 5 and up. Use was still up more than 14.5 percent in 2016 compared to 2015, RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship noted.
“That’s not a system that requires a reservation, it’s demand-driven,” Blankenship noted after the meeting.
Given similar concerns about overuse of the Maroon Bells area, it’s also possible that whatever comes about at Hanging Lake could ultimately serve as a reservation-based model for Maroon Bells in the future, he said.
Mayville said the best model for a reservation-based system is employed by the river guides that run shuttles into Glenwood Canyon for commercial rafting.
“We do have that to use as a model,” he said. “Where we are in the planning process we have to be careful about fairness and safety.”
Another aspect of the Hanging Lake discussion is changing the “rest area” status given to the Hanging Lake parking area by the Colorado Department of Transportation. That designation allows any I-70 traveler to use the area, whether they are accessing Hanging Lake or not.
The Forest Service is meeting Friday with CDOT officials in Grand Junction, where that very topic is being discussed, Mayville said.
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Former Carbondale trustee Katrina Byars said she wants to bring a voice of environmental sustainability to the commission, and believes her opponent has served long enough.