Anton Benitez

TMVOA Executive Director Anton Benitez presented Telluride Town Council with an overview of gondola operational costs, ridership and system challenges Tuesday morning. As of 2027, Mountain Village, TMVOA and Telluride Ski Resort’s financially contracted obligations to fund the system will expire. (Photo by Suzanne Cheavens/Telluride Daily Planet)

 

In government years, 2027 is right around the corner. That’s when the entities currently funding gondola operations and maintenance will no longer be obliged to foot the bill for what is a unique and free mode of transportation between the towns of Telluride and Mountain Village.

Except it really isn’t free. Operations and maintenance weigh in at $3.5 million, while capital and major repairs account for anywhere from $50,000 to $2 million. The Town of Mountain Village owns and operates the 22-year-old gondola system, as well as provides the busses used to shuttle passengers to and form the two towns in the vent of shutdowns. The Telluride Mountain Village Owners Association (TMVOA) funds the majority of its operations via a 3 percent Mountain Village real estate transfer tax. Grant money has fed about $10 million into the gondola’s budget, while Telluride Ski Resort’s 1 percent of lift ticket sales provides about $200,000 per year. Total operations have climbed 7.5 percent since 2009. Since the gondola carried its first passengers, it has been in operation for 113,000 hours.

Major improvements such as five miles of cable that requires replacement every 10 years and back-up generators powerful enough to run the gondola at full speed in the event of a power failure are major capital outlays that are absorbed by the gondola’s current owner. 

TMVOA Executive Director Anton Benitez gave a presentation about gondola costs and long-term planning to Telluride Town Council Tuesday that he will repeat two more times this week — to the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners today (Wednesday) and Mountain Village Town Council on Thursday. With the financial obligations of Mountain Village, TMVOA and Telski sunsetting in less than a decade, an assembled committee of local officials representing regional stakeholders is looking to the future.

“This ends in 2027,” Benitez told council. “That’s why we’re working toward a long-term plan.”

Telluride Town Council member Todd Brown serves on the gondola committee and said the time was now to plan for the gondola’s financial future.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in understanding and getting to an agreement for future funding,” he said.

In operation since 1996, ridership has done nothing but climb in the ensuing years. In just a year of operation, rider numbers hit more than 1 million and since 2006 numbers have not dipped below the 2 million mark. As of 2017, nearly 3 million visitor and locals parked their cars and rode the gondola to work, shopping, dining and recreational activities. Summer use spikes in July, while winter riders hit a high mark in March. Preliminary results of a ridership study report of the 2.8 million riders, the number is split evenly between the region’s two major seasons.

Regular rider surveys conducted by the Telluride Tourism Board indicate that the gondola is the No. 1 attraction for area visitors.

“The fact that it’s free is not lost on people,” Brown said. “It’s a really good deal for our visitors.”

Whether the service will remain free to its many users is far from being contemplated, but Benitez and the gondola committee advise that now is the time to start making plans.

Mountain Village Town Council member Dan Caton agreed, noting that the gondola is currently operating with as many cars as the system can safely carry — 54, each with an eight-person capacity.

“Essentially the gondola is maxed out,” he said. “It’s wise to start right now, gathering information and disseminating it.”

Caton added that as the system ages, maintenance crews are finding that some parts are no longer being manufactured, adding to the increased costs of upkeep. The gondola is shuttered twice a year — in the spring and fall shoulder seasons — for extensive repairs and maintenance. New cable, for instance, was installed in April 2018.

The committee’s next steps are to continue informing and educating the public, as well as the regional stakeholders, via regular updates, an easily navigable website, and sharing the results of an economic impact and ridership forecast study conducted by consultants. Through ongoing meetings, a vision of what the system looks like in the future can be derived.

Though Dec. 31, 2027, seems to be a speck on the horizon, for area officials who must determine how the “first and only free transportation system of its kind in the United States” will continue operations looking ahead is the only option.

Telluride Town Council and gondola committee member Tom Watkinson stated what seemed the obvious.

“The year 2027 is somewhat around the corner.”