The current gondola operating agreement expires in 2027, and area officials are continuing talks regarding the future of the system. (Planet file photo)

While 2027 may sound like the distant future, members of the gondola subcommittee know that isn’t the case.

Regional officials explained that during a virtual meeting Tuesday night, which was the first of what will be many leadership meetings regarding the future of the gondola system after the current operating agreement expires in 2027.

“I think there’s a perception that it’s 2027 and that’s a long way off, but having been in the process this long it almost feels like that’s not enough time. There’s a sense of urgency in some of the (federal) spending packages that have come out that we want to start to formulate some more strategies on this,” Mountain Village Council Member Patrick Berry said of his four-plus years of involvement.

Currently, Mountain Village maintains and operates the gondola system, as well as provides offseason bus service when the gondola is closed during the offseasons. Telluride Mountain Village Owners Association (TMVOA) funds a majority of gondola and maintenance operations, which are approximately $3.5 million annually, through a 3 percent Mountain Village real estate transfer assessment. One percent of Telski ticket sales also currently go toward gondola funding. But after 2027 none of that will be required. Officials have been discussing how the gondola will operate and what that could look like post-2027 for years, including during their respective governmental meetings, but the subcommittee meetings will hone in on the finer details moving forward, particularly funding and what upgrades may be necessary to meet future demand.

San Miguel County Commissioner Lance Waring echoed Berry’s sentiments in reiterating the overall cost will most likely require applying for grants.

“This is not going to be something that we can probably afford as a region. We’re going to have to rely on grant money from, hopefully, the federal government, and in order to do that we’re going to have to come up with a plan to get this in the hopper and that’s going to take time. So when Patrick said there’s a bit of urgency to this, he’s right, because it’s far away but also close,” he said.

Miles Graham, of Denver consulting firm GBSM, moderated Wednesday’s meeting, which mainly established and explained the consensus of subcommittee members regarding the gondola’s future, as well as presented a three-phased, long-term roadmap. In 2022, phases two and three will consist of assessing needs, evaluating options, identifying a desired system, and plan for long-term funding and operation, according to the roadmap.

Heinz Nusser of Outdoor Engineers also presented their potential future options, including smaller upgrades, major upgrades and a new gondola system, according to the presentation.

Questions about overall costs came up, but officials explained that is not exactly known yet, as each option presented needs to be vetted more throughout the process, though it will be in the tens of millions, most likely.

“We don’t have construction numbers and downtime for these various options. That has to be developed in a lot more detail, but we do know at this point, that between the low end of Option 2 (major upgrades) and the high end of Option 3 (a new system), we’re talking tens of millions of dollars, so it’s a significant challenge to all of us in the region to come up with the appropriate solution and then find the appropriate funding. It’s not going to be easy,” said Telluride Mayor Pro Tem Todd Brown, who has been involved in the process since the beginning.

Brown also pointed to numerous studies and surveys that have been conducted over the years that helped form the basis of the subcommittee’s starting point.

“This is more than just opinions of the subcommittee. We’ve had numerous reports through the last six years about growth in the region, about the quality of the experience, are visitors’ impressions, and some fairly significant technical reports about not only our existing gondola, but also what’s going on with new developments in gondola systems. It’s built not just on opinion, but also on a lot of data,” Brown explained.

Other than funding, there are many other factors to consider, subcommittee members explained, including increasing capacity and how that could effect wait times and potentially result in ancillary issues like regional workers choosing to drive instead of taking the gondola. There’s also the environmental impact to keep in mind, as well as the overall look and feel of an upgraded system.

“I just wanted to remind everyone, though I think we’re all aware of it, the gondola is the number one year-round attraction here in the region. Many surveys have shown this,” Mountain Village Mayor Pro Tem Dan Caton said. “ … It’s really important to us that we keep this, not just an important attraction, but as we also discovered through some of our surveys, this is an incredible benefit for our workers.”

The subcommittee includes Berry, Brown, Waring, Graham, Nusser and Caton, as well as Anton Benitez and Abbott Smith of TMVOA, San Miguel Authority for Regional Transportation Executive Director David Averill, county manager Mike Bordogna, Jeff Proteau of Telski, Sam Haas of GBSM, and Oswald Graber of Outdoor Engineers.

Wednesday’s meeting did not include a public comment period, but Graham explained there will be several opportunities for community members to provide feedback throughout the process, including in-person events and surveys. Public comments can also be submitted to OurGondola@gmail.com.