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‘It’s absolutely essential”: Project begins in Estes Park to ease national park traffic

A yellow tractor sits beside a town road with mountains in the distance
Leigh Paterson
/
KUNC
Construction of the Downtown Estes Loop Project is underway near several small businesses including Komito Boots, pictured here on March 13, 2023. The project is meant to improve access to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park and ease congestion in town.

Road construction in Estes Park is finally underway on a project that has been ten years in the making. The Downtown Estes Loop Project, known as 'the loop,’ aims to get tourists to and from Rocky Mountain National Park quicker as well as ease congestion in town.

“Estes Park is being overrun by people who want to enjoy the out-of-doors and Rocky Mountain National Park and all of the other activities that we have here,” Steve Komito, owner of Komito Boots, said. “That's fine, that's what our economy is built on–but it's unpleasant.”

Last year, 4.3 million people visited Rocky Mountain National Park. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of those cars pass right through the town, which sits just a few miles from two of the park’s main entrances. The hope is that the loop’s new road configuration will better handle the park traffic that currently clogs up the downtown’s streets.

“It's absolutely essential,” Komito said. “I didn't think I was going to live long enough to actually see this project being done.”

A map view of downtown Estes Park with orange, pink and green-colored highlights on sections of road
Courtesy of Downtown Estes Loop
This map shows the new traffic configuration that the project will create: connected one-way streets running through downtown Estes Park.

With the loop project, two-way roads through town will be converted into a series of connecting one-way streets that form a new traffic pattern: a one-way loop. A few stop signs and a stop light will be removed; a roundabout will be put in.

Steve Komito poses holding a brown hiking boot and a hammer in either hand
Leigh Paterson
/
KUNC
Steve Komito repairs a pair of hiking boots on March 13, 2023. Komito has owned Komito Boots, a small shop in Estes Park, for nearly 40 years. He feels strongly that the Loop will ease congestion for tourists and locals alike.

At 82 years old, Komito still skis in the backcountry every Sunday. He takes side roads to avoid downtown traffic and makes sure to arrive early when he goes to Rocky Mountain National Park.

“I really love this town, and the traffic congestion, it really diminishes everybody's enjoyment, really,” Komito said. “You can ask all those people who are waiting, idling, breathing somebody else's exhaust if they're having a good time.”

Since construction began in January, heavy equipment and detour signs have appeared across Estes Park. Main roads through town have been shut down, restricting access to some businesses, particularly in a commercial area called Piccadilly Square.

“I never quite know what I'm going to see when I come in in the morning,” Matthew Heiser, the owner of Rock Cut Brewing, said. “But overall, it's been okay for us. Customers are finding us. We've been as busy as last year for the same time period, so I can't really complain on that front.”

Matt Heiser poses in front of beer taps
Leigh Paterson
/
KUNC
Matt Heiser, owner of Rock Cut Brewing, poses after pouring a beer on March 13th. He says the impact of nearby road closures on his business has been minimal so far.  His brewery is one of a handful of businesses in Estes Park dealing with heavy machinery operating right out front.   

Heiser worries about the impact construction might have on his business as tourism picks up in spring and summer. Bigger picture concerns from some small business owners focus on how visible their storefronts will be with the new one-way traffic configuration. Most motorists will now only pass by once, but they will likely see more of downtown en route to and from the national park.

“My opinion is probably mixed,” Heiser said. “I think in the long run it will be a good thing for this town. We don't spend enough money on infrastructure as a whole in the United States, probably globally, and this is a project the town certainly couldn't have done on its own.”

In 2013, the town of Estes Park applied to the Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP), which funds transportation projects in communities near federal lands. This fall, after years of delays, construction bids came in way over budget. The town kicked in extra money as did the state and the federal government.

The total cost of the project comes to $42 million, with federal dollars covering the majority– $34.71 million in funding. Estes Park is contributing $5.71. The Colorado Department of Transportation is putting in the remaining $1.58 million. Much of Estes Park’s contribution is ultimately being covered by the state, in exchange for the town taking over maintenance of a local highway that had previously been CDOT’s responsibility.

Conversations on how to deal with traffic in Estes Park have been going on for decades, though some say traffic has become more evenly spread throughout the day since Rocky Mountain National Park instituted a timed-entry system a few years ago.

In 2019, the town’s marketing office released a visitor survey. Most respondents reported no bad experiences during their visits, although traffic, parking and crowds were the most common negatives.

Todd Jirsa stands in front of a white truck on a field of open yellowed grass with mountains in the distance
Leigh Paterson
/
KUNC
Former Mayor Todd Jirsa gets out of a shared truck at MacGregor Ranch, an historic property on the outskirts of Estes Park.

“If you're talking about the experience of going into the park, and all you're trying to do is get through town to go to the park, you're going to love the loop,” former mayor Todd Jirsa said.

Jirsa’s family owns the Village Goldsmith, a jewelry store west of the loop. Jirsa questions if this project is really the best way to solve transportation issues in town in the long term, though.

“I mean, we're a very unique town with a, you know, with a great character to it. Why are we trying to move traffic through town faster? I mean, what we really need to do, I think, is we need to provide more parking. We need to get people out of their cars and to spend more time downtown.”
Todd Jirsa, Former Mayor of Estes Park

Still, the Loop is moving forward. Construction is set to be completed by the end of next year. The town’s current mayor, Wendy Koenig, is in favor of it, despite having voted against the project when she was a town trustee.

“Well, what changed for me is a lot of time between then and now,” Koenig said.

The town’s infrastructure has gotten older and construction of the loop now comes with several added benefits including an expanded stormwater collection system, the replacement of an old bridge and while the roads are being ripped up, the town is going to replace aging water pipes running underneath.

“We're old enough now,” Koenig said. “We celebrated our 100th anniversary in 2017 and we need to fix some things, so we're all going to have to roll up our sleeves and take a deep breath and realize it's a moment in time.”

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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