The gondola’s Market Plaza Station displays its Ryan Bonneau photo mural that also doubles as a soundproofing panel.

(Photo courtesy of TMVOA)

Telluride’s gondola system provides free transportation between the Town of Mountain Village and the Town of Telluride. It’s the first and only free public transportation of its kind in the United States. And on Wednesday, the gondola became incrementally more special.

That afternoon, a thick red ribbon fenced off the gondola’s Market Plaza Station from the Market at Mountain Village’s sidewalks and parking spots. Why? Because officials were hosting a ribbon-cutting to debut a spectacular, artsy soundproofing project two years in the making.

Around 3:30 p.m., 20 or so guests gathered at Market Plaza for the ceremony. Glasses of sparkling wine and sparkling water were handed out. Mountain Village Mayor Pro Tem Dan Caton approached the gondola station threshold with a pair of oversized scissors. As cameras flashed, Caton sliced the ribbon — ushering in a whole new Market Plaza Station.

Guests crossed the threshold and beheld enormous screens imprinted with stunning black-and-white landscape photographs of Telluride and Mountain Village captured by Ryan Bonneau. Behind the screens were 5-inch thick panels of noise-swallowing soundproofing material.

Garrett Brafford is director of operations for Telluride Mountain Village Owners Association (TMVOA), said, “Over the years, we’ve heard complaints from neighbors about noise coming from gondola stations. (Telluride Ski Resort) and Mountain Village have also heard about the noise, so we came together to do a collaborative study on the noise.”

That was two years ago. Eventually, Brafford said, TMVOA approached an Austrian textile company called Typico to order soundproofing panels for the chondola station. Tests of those panels proved their efficacy, and TMVOA proceeded to plan big for the gondola system’s gateway station at Market Plaza.

The largest panel, inside the station on the north wall, is 40-feet wide and 11-feet tall. There’s another 11-foot-by-28 piece on the west wall. Soundproofing panels made to look like textured steel adorn other walls and the ceiling, according to TMVOA Executive Director Anton Benitez.

Said Benitez, “The primary purpose of the project is to reduce the level of noise in the station. This is achieved with the sound-dampening material that is actually behind the screening and therefore is not visible to onlookers. The screening material is actually able to be printed on … given the flexibility of this material and technology, it was ultimately decided to add the landscape photos to the overall project.”

At Wednesday’s ceremony, both the reduced noise and artful coverings won near unanimous approval. Said Benitez, “We believe this provides for a great (gondola) user experience, actually bringing the outside beauty of our natural environment to the inside of the station.”

Both of the panoramic images are strategically lit from behind by LED lighting to bring out the beauty of alpine snowfields, rays of sunshine and other points of light.

Benitez figures the public art produced could actually become something of a tourist attraction.

“We believe that gondola riders will view the gondola station and the pictures as a huge improvement to the look and feel of the gondola station, with the landscape pictures as exquisite photography of our region,” he said.

The reopening of the gondola today (Friday) serves as a grand opening of sorts for the ski community’s winter season — and a reminder of the system’s unique status in American transportation.

What was once an 8-mile drive between Telluride and Mountain Village was slashed into a cost-free, hands-free, scenic and more direct 3-mile route over the mountains. The gondola system records over 2.5 million terminal exits each year.

TMVOA is the primary funding source for the gondola, providing approximately $3.5 million annually for operations and maintenance alone. In addition, TMVOA has funded significant improvements to the gondola, including $1.4 million in 2017 for a redundant power system and nine additional cabins on the mainline bringing capacity to 1,070 passengers per hour, which represents a 16 percent increase.

This season, the gondola will run every day from today through April 7. Normal hours are 6:30 a.m. to midnight; extended hours to 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays will begin on Dec. 15 and run through April 7.