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Estes Park May Build A Transit Center In Lieu Of ‘The Loop’

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Town of Estes Park
A preliminary conceptual design of a transit facility/parking structure may be an alternative to the Downtown Estes Loop project.

If you visit Estes Park, you’re part of the problem.

The town is grappling with increasing tourist traffic and parking problems, which have only gotten worse as Estes Park’s popularity has grown. Throw in 3 million annual visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park and a roadway that wasn’t designed to handle the congestion and you’ve got a big headache.

But how to fix it?

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Kate Rush, spokeswoman for the town.

Visitors make up the lifeblood of the mountain gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, whose small town feel is punctuated by candy stores and t-shirt shops, a stark contrast to Colorado’s ski resort communities.

“People come to Estes Park for the feel, for the community,” Rush said.

But that small community, whose population at last check was 6,086 but sees an annual visitation of over 2 million people, has been divided over a controversial roadway loop.

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Credit Town of Estes Park
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Town of Estes Park
A map of the proposed Downtown Estes Loop Project. The project includes evaluation of three primary roadways: Elkhorn Avenue, Moraine Avenue and Riverside Drive through downtown Estes Park.

Here’s a breakdown of the Downtown Estes Loop concept from Bizwest:

“Under the Downtown Loop proposal, westbound U.S. 36 traffic, toward [Rocky Mountain National] park, would use the highway’s current route – west along Elkhorn Avenue through the downtown core of tourist shops and restaurants, then south and west on Moraine Avenue – but eastbound U.S. 36 would be diverted at the Moraine Avenue curve onto West Riverside Drive, across a new bridge over the Big Thompson at Ivy Street, then north on East Riverside Drive to reconnect with Elkhorn east of the downtown core.”

Bizwest further notes that backers of the loop are looking to ease traffic gridlock and replace 2013 flood damaged bridges in one fell swoop. Opponents fear both the disturbance of residential peace on the proposed route and damage to businesses who would see drops in traffic. The division has resulted in tensions among residents as well as letters to the editor in the local paper, both for and against.

Initially, the Downtown Estes Loop was estimated to cost $17.2 million. But a preliminary finding in the National Environmental Policy Act study, which is considering both no action and the loop project, found that the Big Thompson River channel under three bridges would need to be widened and deepened in case of another 100-year flood. That would almost double the cost of the project.

Now a third option may be added to the study, which may be less controversial.

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Credit Town of Estes Park
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Town of Estes Park
A bird's eye view of the proposed the transit facility and parking structure. It would allow visitors to stop, park and hop on a shuttle to Rocky Mountain National Park or around town.

In light of the mushrooming cost, Estes Park Mayor Pinkham wrote a letter to the Central Federal Lands Highway Division, asking that a parking and transit center be considered in the study. Town spokeswoman Kate Rush points out that the transit facility parking structure would be downtown and allow visitors to stop, park and hop on a shuttle to Rocky or around town.

“The precise location of a transit facility parking structure would only be determined during the NEPA study and the project design phase, so at this point we don’t know an exact location,” she said. “We did a conceptual drawing for something like this being located in the post office parking area of downtown Estes Park, but the precise location of the design would only come through  the process.”

If it’s included in the NEPA study, there would be more public process and getting more public feedback around looking at the parking structure alternative.

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Credit Town of Estes Park
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Town of Estes Park
Estes Park's population at last check was 6,086 but the town's annual visitation is over 2 million people. It's also a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, which sees over 3 million people annually.

“This would take a big dent out of our parking issue,” Rush said, but she cautions the parking and transit structure would have be the preferred alternative when the NEPA study is completed in 2016.

“It’s likely that it wouldn’t cost as much as the Downtown Estes Loop, but we won’t know until an actual conceptual alternative was developed through the screening process,” Rush said.

“A lot of what we’ve heard through this process is we’d rather you build parking than the loop. So in a way this is us reacting to a lot of that feedback that we’ve heard for so many years and through the study. We know that parking is a very high priority for a lot for the downtown businesses and residents just as is reducing traffic congestion,” she said.

Estes Park already has a shuttle to take visitors around town, and a separate parking structure is being built near the visitor’s center. Now, Rush said, they will have to wait to see if this new proposal is included in the NEPA study.

“At this point we don’t know when we’ll hear back from Central Federal Lands on this request.”

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