Gondola operations and maintenance costs are steadily rising. In a presentation to Telluride Town Council Tuesday, gondola officials outlined options for the workhorse transportation system for the future. (Courtesy image)

In a morning work session Tuesday, Telluride Town Council was briefed on what lies ahead for the gondola, the spectacular transportation link between the towns of Mountain Village and Telluride. Officials associated with gondola operations and maintenance presented their findings and projections on the well-used conveyance’s ridership, and the anticipated costs of repair or replacement.

Telluride Mayor Pro Tem Todd Brown sits on the gondola subcommittee with council member Tom Watkinson. Brown set the stage for the morning’s presentation.

“We have been looking into what happens to not only the agreements but also the gondola itself,” he said. “The existing operational agreement expires at the end of 2027. When we started this that was a long time away. Now it's creeping up on us, and what (consultant Miles Graham) is going to be talking about is the work of the subcommittee in gathering information about usage and opinions of the users, as well as the technical solutions to what is the oldest and most operating hours gondola system, probably in the world. So, we're recognizing that going forward, things will change, both in how it's put together, and probably in the equipment itself.”

Anton Benitez, president and CEO of Telluride Mountain Village Owner’s Association (TMVOA), gave council a quick background on the gondola operating agreement.

“The Town of Mountain Village owns and operates the gondola. The majority of funding is through TMVOA through 3 percent Real Estate Transfer Assessment,” Benitez said. “The operating agreement that is in existence expires at the end of 2027 and basically says that the town no longer has to operate or maintain the gondola system or provide buses during the shutdown. TMVOA no longer has to pay for operations and maintenance, and the ski resort no longer has to pay the 1 percent of lift ticket sales that go into funding gondola.”

While who pays for it and how the gondola will be funded beyond 2027 was included, the presentation focused on studies conducted on how best the aging system’s life can be extended. Benitez, calling the gondola a “fantastic transportation system,” noted that operations and maintenance come to $3.5 million, with ridership hitting a peak in 2019 with 3.2 million riders. The gondola has been in operation since 1996.

“Starting about in 2015, we started to see increases in operations and maintenance. You can understand why maintenance is needed on that machine,” Benitez said. “It's the longest running machine, and has the most hours in running in all of North America. So as, a result of that you're going to see more and more maintenance required to keep this machine in its best shape.”

The gondola subcommittee — which consists of representatives from each of the towns, San Miguel County, Telski, SMART and TMVOA — has been working with consultants such as Graham, who is a principal at GBSM. Graham laid out the steps ahead, including a vigorous meeting schedule for 2021 and 2022. As the committee moves forward, public input will be sought, Graham said.

“We want to understand more about not only what the leadership committee thinks of the gondola system, but the broader community,” he said. “We want to learn more about passenger expectations, what people love about the gondola today what they would improve about it, if they could make some updates in the future, looking at what are our options. That's going to be a big part of what we present in October, is not making any decisions but just defining what are our options for the future.”

Graham explained that the subcommittee has been mulling a range of options from not doing anything save for upkeep repairs, (the committee has eliminated that option) to total system replacement. The ultimate decision will stem, in part, from rider experience.

“Based on the analysis that was conducted in 2018 and 2019, the useful life of the gondola was about another 10 years which means until that operating agreement expires, that the gondola can continue to operate at its current capacity, which is the limiting factor to not having more riders,” Graham said. “This all boils down to, when does our customer experience start to decrease, and it's when waiting lines are longer at peak times which we're seeing today. It's when some of those missing or outdated features are slowing down that operation, and it's a detraction to the visitor experience in the ridership.”

The gondola, which will be feted with a 25th anniversary celebration in December, was clearly identified as a necessary element to the region, and one that, the subcommittee agrees, needs to be kept in place beyond 2027.

“The gondola has established itself as a community asset, and one that the subcommittee thinks should continue,” Graham said. “After 2027 … we want to continue planning and working together collaboratively to map out what that future does look like, and to address growth. Doing nothing, it was agreed, is not an answer.”