Last Saturday afternoon, the summer tourist season officially arrived in the Pikes Peak region. Unfortunately, many visitors will not fondly remember enduring our Clogged Artery, the Cimarron/U.S. 24 exit off Interstate 25.
As far as thousands of drivers could tell, that was their only option from I-25 to Old Colorado City (though the Territory Days crowds were mostly locals), Manitou Springs, Pikes Peak and beyond. So, from both directions, they joined the lines in the exit lanes. And waited. And waited.
How bad was the traffic tie-up? At its worst, the line of northbound vehicles trying to exit I-25 was backed up at least a mile. The southbound mass went just as far the other way.
Nice first impression. Families drive from points afar to Colorado, finally make it to town and hit the wall. So they sit, wasting time and precious gas with empty stomachs and/or bloated bladders, until working through the Clogged Artery.
Actually, some (perhaps many) of them didn't bother. They sat in line for a while, lost patience and jumped back onto the I-25 thoroughfare, perhaps heading for Denver or Pueblo to spend their money.
That's not taking care of business.
This region depends heavily on summer tourism. It brings people and their wallets, which means income for businesses and governments. With the Springs and El Paso County feeling budget crunches, fueled by unexpectedly low sales-tax revenues, they should be bending over backward to embrace the visitors.
It all starts with signage on the freeway, a longtime weakness here. If you travel to other states, you surely understand. In many places, especially with multiple attractions, travelers begin seeing helpful signs (beside the highway, and not just billboards) on the fringes of the area.
For instance, to assist drivers from either direction on I-25, signs could offer alternatives such as "Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, Manitou Springs: next four exits." That now would mean Cimarron, Uintah, Fillmore and Garden of the Gods plus a fifth, Bijou, once that rebuilt interchange opens in the fall.
More signs would point tourists from exits to top attractions, with a Web address for drivers with Blackberrys. Every sign, on or off the freeway, also would include a phone number (since everyone these days has a cell phone) to talk to real people for more information, especially in summer, with recordings for other occasions. That way, during busy times such as Memorial Day weekend, cars encountering major snarls at exits such as the Clogged Artery could quickly find nearby alternatives.
This is not rocket science. Just common sense.
Signs do cost money, and they require planning. But the folks at Experience Colorado Springs (the fancy name for our convention and visitors bureau) would be smart to make this idea a priority, as important as their other effective tactics for promoting the city.
Meanwhile, when traffic backs up as it did last weekend, why not have law enforcement intervene? That way, instead of the poorly timed stoplights for the I-25 off-ramps, police could direct as many exiting cars as possible through the intersection. The Clogged Artery problem struck in reverse Monday, when traffic on eastbound U.S. 24 backed up from 8th Street to nearly 31st.
What we don't need is losing travelers and their money to Denver or Pueblo. We also don't need visitors going home with horror stories about Colorado Springs. That's not just a guess, either. One of those visitors, driving an SUV with Kansas plates, shared his frustration Saturday at a Manitou gas pump.
"It just took me nearly an hour to get from the interstate to here," the guy said, shaking his head in disgust. "I don't know if we'll ever be back."
Perhaps someday, when gas prices climb even higher and tax revenues continue falling short of expectations, Colorado Springs will get it. When you're a tourist mecca, you have to cater to the customers.
Not just with promotions, but in every conceivable way.