Pike's Peak Fees Hurt Local Users

For those of us who cherish the outdoors, Pikes Peak is one of major reasons to live in Colorado Springs. For hikers, fishermen, runners, climbers, hunters, photographers and other nature loving folk, Colorado Springs stands apart from nearly all US cities of comparable size thanks to it's convenient location at the foot of a 14,110 foot mountain. Activities for all ages and all seasons await the local who has a couple hours of free time. Many of us spend dozens of days on the peak a year. Many of us hope to spend even more time on the peak. Unfortunately, recent changes to the fee structure for the Pike's Peak Highway may have a drastic impact on these plans.

In recent years, local users of Pike's Peak, and their families, have made use of the $100 unlimited family pass, which was good for one calendar year. Citing mis-use of the family pass, along with various budgetary factors, the City of Colorado Springs introduced a new fee structure in January of 2009 that eliminates the unlimited family pass replacing it with a 5 visit pass; the 5 visits will cost the same $100 though. My wife and I went on the Peak approximately 20 times this year . . . that comes to about $400 under the new plan.

The worse part of this might be the fact that none of the reasons cited by the City make any sense. Take the idea that locals were using their family passes to bring all of their out of town guests up with them, thus cheating the highway of valuable revenue. Statistics provided by City of Colorado Springs employee and manager of the Pike's Peak Highway Jack Glavan show that the visitors using the family passes were probably paying more per visit than if they would have been purchasing the tourist passes.

The city reports that 521 family passes were sold in 2008 and 6462 total visits were made on these passes. This equals about 12 visits per $100 pass. Let me do the math ( because apparently no one else has ). For each visit on the family passes, the mountain collected slightly more than $8.00. This is MORE than the tourists would pay entering on their own and paying the normal rates. A car load is only $35 dollars and can have up to 7 people. With a full load, this is only $5.00 per person.

On top of all of this, there's the fact that locals just don't make up a significant portion of the visitors to the Peak each year. In 2008, the total number of visitors to Pike's Peak was over a quarter of a million people. Yet, the number of visitors accounted for by the family passes was 6,462. This means that the visitors coming to the mountain via the family passes was only 2.5% of the total visitors. And, yes, that's more than 250,000 tourists driving up the peak each year. Which makes a nice segue to the real problems faced by the Pike's Peak highway.

While the City's current fiscal crisis and a slight decrease in revenue due to a 6% dip in total visits both contribute to the highways budget problems, the real cause of the budgetary crisis is the paving of the highway. Several years ago, the Sierra Club sued the City on the basis of environmental damage to the mountain. The result of this law suit was that the City has been forced to pave the highway. This law suit specifically says that the environmental damage was caused by the excessive dumping of gravel on the road each year to sustain the high volumes of traffic, i.e. the quarter of a million tourists. Due to the importance of the tourists to the local economy, closure of the highway does not seem to be an option. It's hard to imagine many tourists coming to the Springs if they couldn't drive to the top of Pike's Peak for some flavored oxygen.

So, who should pay for the maintenance of the Pike's Peak highway. If the city's economy as a whole benefits from it, it seems that we should all chip in. But tax support of the highway is nearly non-existent. They claim to be operating almost entirely from gate revenue. So be it. But trying to pass the buck on to local users of Pike's Peak is both wrong and ineffective.

The ineffective is clear from the numbers above. The wrong is even clearer. When locals drive up the Pike's Peak Highway, they aren't heading up for a quick hit of cherry flavored oxygen, or even a T-Shirt. We are accessing the Pike's Peak National Forest, public owned land. The fact that the City of Colorado Springs also likes to have 250,000 tourists go up there each year should not impinge on our rights to access local public lands. You can buy a unlimited year pass to our National Park system for $80.00 dollars.

What is the new fee structure? The City has replaced the $100 unlimited family pass with a $100 dollar 5 visit pass. This pass allows you to bring your family on the mountain 5 times for the same $100. Our family goes on the peak about 20 times a year. We simply can't afford to pay $400 dollars a year for this. Worse yet, consider a backpacking trip. Since you can't leave a car overnight, you have to pay the fee once for the start of your trip, and once for the end of your trip. This is ridiculous and shows little understanding of the land use.

That leaves us with the other new pass. You can now buy an individual pass that gives 14 admissions for $100. But every person in the car must have an admission with this pass. For a family of 4, this is even more costly than the family pass. Note, even your kids have to have a punch, unless they are under 5 -- the National Parks let kids under 16 in free.

Why does this make so little sense? Primarily because the City made decisions without collecting information about local users, and without analyzing their own data. What user groups did the City use? In an article in the Gazette, "Pikes Peak Highway Access to be Limited" , Glavan describes how the City's analysis considered the primary users of the peak to be runners and fisherman. The article goes on to quote accomplished local trail runner Matt Carpenter as saying that 14 punches is plenty for the runners -- hence the 14 punch pass. What about users who visit the mountain in all seasons and rack up as many as 20-30 visits per year? Or what about families who would consume 4 punches a visit? This type of usage will cost hundreds of dollars a year under the new fee structure.

In the end, local users of Pike's Peak deserve unlimited, affordable access to the Pike's Peak National Forest. The previous $100 dollar unlimited family pass was more costly than the current National Park system's nationwide unlimited pass, but we were happy to have it. The budgetary crisis faced by the mountain is the product of the high volume of tourists and should not lead to penalties on local users. And, as we have shown, the numbers don't add up anyway; local users have already been paying their fair share. We propose that the City revoke the 2009 fee structure changes. Since the math contradicts the idea that family pass abuse was bleeding money from the Pike's Peak Highway, the old system would probably be more than adequate. But if the City wants to engineer a new fee structure anyway, make sure to base the changes on the economic facts and the user patterns of Pike's Peak locals.

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  1. I think the city should pay for the highway with taxes!

  2. Colorado Springs has some of the lowest taxes in the country.

  3. This blog is a very well spoken piece . Informative ,fact based, and logical -what the writer does here is bring to light some very good points . My family also used the unlimited $100 dollar pass in the same way as the writer . We go to the mountain for many reasons in all seasons.
    Tourists bring the most revenue to the summit via the highway and also the cog railway. Locals don't mind paying their share but if the city could adopt a yearly pass modeled after the National Parks system they (the city) would find huge and widespread local user support. To over charge locals to access "America's mountain" as it is now billed is wrong .
    Please join the discussion and speak for yourselves. Let your support be known.
    My love for the Peak is real .
    My support of this blog is as well.
    Kevin McLaughlin , Colorado Springs.

  4. The City operates the highway under a special use permit from the Forest Service. As such, the equipment, buildings, revenue etc do not belong to the City, they belong to the Forest Service. All revenue must be reinvested in the operation and maintenance of the highway. If the special use permit is not renewed when it expires all of the highway's assets (cash, equipment, buildings) must be turned over to the USFS. There isn't enough tax revenue to run the City, let along the Highway.

  5. This massive budget problem wouldn't exist if the citizens of Colorado Springs would loosen their purse strings and pay more in taxes. You can't expect to have public services without paying for it in taxes.

  6. @Anonymous I totally agree. And, actually, if push comes to shove and they would actually close the road because of budget constraints, then I think the businesses which rely on the tourist economy would support a tax to help with the highway.