In Colorado, too much white leading ski areas to see red


FRISCO, Colo. -- Winter storms are a matter of course in Colorado, and ski resorts build business on reports of heavy snows. Skiers generally flock to the mountains in greater numbers during storms, looking for fresh powder and pristine conditions.  

But that largely was not the case with three recent storms, including two blizzards, that collectively dumped seven feet of snow on Denver and the foothills and paralyzed much of the state. In addition to creating havoc at Denver Airport and on highways, the storms had a chilling effect on the economically crucial holiday ski season.

Resorts declined to say exactly what impact the storms had on business, but groups that promote skiing in the state said they expected some negative results when major players such as Vail Resorts and Intrawest release stockholder reports later this winter.

National media focused on the shutdown of Denver Airport just days before Christmas and on the hundreds of flights canceled during a similar storm just a week later. But the traffic snarls also rekindled a statewide debate over a mounting problem for the ski industry: an overburdened transportation system that many say is already discouraging in-state skier traffic and may be discouraging repeat visits to a state that depends on billions of dollars in economic rewards from snow.

The state's highway infrastructure, which serves most of the major resorts through the I-70 corridor, has become increasingly crowded, often leading to backups even in good weather.

For example, as the lifts closed at Copper Mountain a week ago Sunday, even with only wind and cold to combat, skiers sat in traffic for nearly four hours as they tried to make their way back to the Front Range. Some drivers spent more than two hours trying to negotiate the drive from Frisco, near Copper Mountain, to the Eisenhower Tunnel at the Continental Divide, normally a 20-minute drive.

The traffic delays have an economic downside. They are often blamed for missed flights and reduced time on the slopes, and some state economists worry that they may discourage skiers from picking Colorado as a destination. Those problems are greatly exacerbated by major storms. Though highway crews worked around the clock to keep I-70 open, skiers who ventured west during the recent blizzards faced long delays in reaching resorts, and many visitors saw their vacation time cut short.

Matt Sugar, a spokesman for Winter Park, where Intrawest operates a popular central-mountain resort, said the number of skiers declined 10% in a single day last week after an avalanche closed U.S. 40 at Berthoud Pass for eight hours and trapped several motorists in their cars.

  "It has been a very mixed bag for the industry," said Molly Cuffe of Colorado Ski Country USA, which represents resorts and other ski-related businesses. "The resorts with drive market from the Denver area were impacted by the storms in a negative way for the short term. But the destination markets saw very little cancellation. There was only a 5% cancellation at Aspen."

She said regional airports continued to operate during the storms, helping to keep traffic up for Aspen, Vail and Steamboat Springs. Though thousands of passengers were stranded at Denver Airport in the pre-Christmas storm and hundreds more flights were cancelled a week later, Cuffe said resorts generally gave the airport strong marks for handling weather, traffic and the millions of visitors who descend on Colorado each ski season.

High-mountain resorts were not interrupted by the storms. They continued to cater to tens of thousands of daily visitors who managed to reach the resorts despite the storms.

Rethinking transportation options

The storms prodded state and business leaders to assess transportation vulnerability in a state where a thriving ski industry is vital to the economy.

Denver city officials said last week they were conducting a detailed assessment of the blizzard responses by the city and particularly by Denver Airport, which is a overseen by the city government.

Sarah Moss, a spokeswoman for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, said the assessment would also consider economic impacts on the city and region, as officials decide what, if any, policy changes are needed to handle storms in the future.

Officials at the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau said they did not expect that storm-related issues would have a significant economic impact on the city, and they noted that under normal circumstances Denver Airport has one of the best on-time arrival records of any national airport.

"You have to remember that this was the second-worst storm the city has seen in December in the past 60 years," said Rich Grant, a CVB spokesman.

There are also environmental concerns, said Gregg Cassarini, a smart-growth campaign manager for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, an organization of nonprofits that work to balance environmental and economic concerns. The coalition has been trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade state officials to build a public rail system in the mountains rather than pour billions of dollars into highway improvements.

But so far, resort operators have not endorsed rail despite its higher reliability in bad weather, and despite growing traffic problems. But Cassarini said that several resorts had recently joined a coalition of local municipalities that were pushing for short-term highway improvements while also exploring public transit options.

The recent storms, he said, might help draw attention to transportation issues.

"Realistically, even in best-case scenarios, it will be at least 10 years before one shovel of dirt is turned on any highway or train project here," Cassarini said. "The storm may sharpen the focus, but ... I think it has just not become enough of an economic issue yet for the ski resorts to get involved."

To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].

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