Garden of the Gods is on pace for another record-breaking year of visitation. And after a summer in which a dirt parking lot was made and a complimentary shuttle service was tried, Colorado Springs parks officials and advocates expect the crowd-managing ploy to continue.
This year through Sept. 30, the Visitor and Nature Center tallied 1.07 million guests. That’s up 62,000 from the same period last year and is expected to surpass the 1.2 million record, also set last year. The city uses those counts as the best indicator of how many people visited the actual Garden, one of the nation’s most famed free attractions.
But summer congestion wasn’t as severe as usual, to the relief of observers making decisions for the city’s crown jewel. Judging from data and anecdotal evidence, the recommendation by Volpe National Transportation Systems Center worked. The 400 extra parking spaces in the field beside the park’s main entrance, plus the two 14-passenger buses that ferried visitors down Gateway Road, appear to have limited traffic in the Garden.
Electronic counters installed at the lot showed an estimated 27,000 vehicles parked there from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, during the time the shuttles ran. An average 600 stopped there on Saturdays, Volpe reported. An estimated 61,000 passengers boarded at pickups from the visitor center, the lot and the final stop.
The parks department’s Kim King speaks for initial skeptics with the Friends of the Garden of the Gods and the Garden of the Gods Foundation when she says: “We were pleased.”
“I think because we met the objectives, we would be looking at something very similar in terms of scope for next summer,” King said.
But without a clear funding source, how can the free rides be sustained?
The 90-day cost to run the two, sometimes three, shuttles amounted to $108,000, King said, split between the city and the foundation’s visitor center revenues.
But the foundation isn’t committing to fund the buses long-term. Says its president, Jan Martin: “Our money really goes to the maintenance and protection of the park.”
The foundation got a boost last month, when the Garden of the Gods Trading Post pledged $100,000 each year for the next 10 years, totaling $1 million by 2029, the gift shop’s centennial. That money will be used immediately to replace bathrooms in the Central Garden, a project planners anticipate will cost nearly $2 million. “That’s important,” said Tim Haas, president of TAT Enterprises Inc., which owns the Trading Post.
One early criticism of the shuttle program was that it was too small, with visitors being delivered only to the turnaround at Juniper Way Loop, not even to the Central Garden, or farther to, say, Balanced Rock or the Trading Post. Without paying for a bigger fleet, officials say expanding the route would mean longer waits, with shuttles potentially getting stuck in traffic along the full, looping road.
Haas said he worried about a loss in business, “but we didn’t see it.”
He still would like to see a stop at the Trading Post, of course. “I think potentially the development of an additional shuttle system may be worthwhile,” Haas said. “But that’s beyond my pay grade. I don’t have any influence there.”
For next summer, Martin suggested, sponsorships and advertising could help pay for the shuttle. No one is talking about a fee to park or ride — one early proposal by Volpe, angering proponents of the historic promise that the Garden “be kept forever free to the public.”
While the new parking lot was full at times throughout Labor Day weekend, officials and advocates said they see no reason for it to be enlarged now. That would upset dog owners who use that field and locals who opposed the lot staining the park’s natural beauty.
Decisions for next year won’t be made until after Volpe delivers a final report with recommendations, expected at the end of this month or start of next, King said.
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