Confused tourists on their way to Pikes Peak summit or Santa's Workshop amusement park have always been a reality for the people living around Ute Pass.
With the Pikes Peak Cog Railway closed during a $50 million overhaul of the summit, residents of Manitou Springs, Cascade and Ute Pass neighborhoods fear the problem could get much worse this summer. The highway, already traveled by more than 400,000 a year, might need to accommodate some 50,000 more vehicles, and up to 150,000 more people, this summer during construction.
There's one intersection in particular that could become an even bigger nuisance than usual this summer — U.S. Highway 24 and Fountain Avenue, where residents say tourists never know exactly where to turn.
At a town hall meeting May 29 at Ute Pass Elementary in Cascade, local officials offered suggestions for alleviating the headache.
El Paso County is coordinating with Colorado Department of Transportation to extend the left-turn lane on U.S. 24 at Fountain Avenue, said Jennifer Irvine, county engineering manager.
CDOT program engineer Mark Andrew said the department is reviewing measures to add “green time” to cars entering and exiting the intersection. Construction on other highway projects won’t be scheduled during weekends and peak times.
Colorado State Patrol will pay special attention to the roadway this summer, Sgt. Kyle Newsome said. Officers will look for distracted and drunk drivers, and will add extra enforcement shifts on weekends between June and August. Pikes Peak is expected to see an average of around 12,000 visitors per weekend in July, the most popular month according to city data. The data showed an average of 8,400 in June and 10,600 per weekend in August.
So far, Pikes Peak- America’s Mountain, the city enterprise that runs the Pikes Peak Highway, has realigned lanes so more vehicles can line up closer to the Gateway. It’s also begun opening its three gates at 7:30 a.m., and has increased highway staff to up to seven rangers accepting tolls at a time, said Jack Glavan, Pikes Peak Highway manager. There’s a new fiber internet connection to allow for faster transactions.
A city shuttle service to help compensate for the loss of the Cog kicked off May 31 and will continue through Sept. 15. Gray Line Colorado, unaffiliated with the city, has been running shuttles from downtown since April.
The city shuttles, however, pick up passengers farther north, past the U.S. 24 and Fountain Avenue intersection. There are lots at Devil’s Playground, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb pit area about 7 miles from the gate, and the Glen Cove parking area, which is between mile markers 11 and 12. Those lots together can handle roughly 500 vehicles.
Some Manitou Springs and Ute Pass residents were skeptical that the officials’ proposals would be enough to keep tourist traffic manageable.
At the town hall meeting, around 60 neighbors and business owners gathered in the Ute Pass Elementary gymnasium to voice concerns. Several were worried the Cog Railway’s closure would affect the speed and safety of their daily commutes, which they said were already difficult outside of peak visit times.
Newman McAllister, a longtime resident of Chipita Park, said he was frustrated the city hadn’t dealt with congestion problems at the U.S. 24 and Fountain Avenue intersection before the construction. He said signage for tourists to turn right onto the frontage road when traveling east on Fountain Avenue, instead of going through the light at the intersection to turn onto the highway, was inadequate.
"Although the Cog closure may have been a catalyst for your interest in this matter, the problem existed long before the Cog came up," he said. "We continually reminded the county, you cannot safely get people across Fountain Road (sic) unless you do something with that intersection."
Irvine said the county was implementing solutions, including barriers to redirect traffic.
McAllister joked that what the tourists really needed was "a nicely uniformed policeman on a pedestal telling people to turn right."
Another resident, Tom Smith, said he'd rather officials concentrate on serving residents.
“It seems like we’re trying to change our infrastructure around the tourists,” he said.
In response to suggestions that the city shuttles pick up tourists farther southwest, before the U.S. 24/Fountain Avenue bottleneck and Pikes Peak Gateway, Glavan said a lack of parking space and funding put such a solution out of reach.
“It’s not economically feasible,” he said.
District 3 County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf encouraged residents to contact him with questions, suggestions and concerns about congestion this summer.