In May an initial cabin — No. 20 for the 20th anniversary — was removed from the Telluride-Mountain Village gondola line and painted red. In a slightly less glamorous undertaking, around half of the remaining gondola cars are being refurbished this summer and fall ahead of the anniversary in December.
Sunshine Polishing Technology has been maintaining the cabins since 2001. This refurbishing, however, is a special project funded by a federal grant.
Dominique Bastien, owner of Sunshine Polishing Technology, the company in charge of refurbishing half — 30 of 59 — of the gondola cabins, explained that refurbishing involves a team of technicians who work on site to disassemble each unit to apply fresh paint, install new Plexiglas panels, polish floors, install fresh upholstery on seats, touch up logos and re-enforce hardware before reassembly.
“Mainly we restore plastic, remove scratches on Plexiglas windows and sandblast to make sure that the paint shines like on a car,” Bastien said.
Mountain Village Transit Director Jim Loebe calls the red cabin a “one-off” as there are no plans to replicate its custom paint scheme and upholstery. There are, however, plans to refurbish the other half of the fleet.
“We have pending grant applications in for the remaining 29 cabins,” Loebe said. “And depending on their outcomes, this project might be completed a few years ahead of schedule.”
The town applied for and received FTA section 5311 capital grants to fund portions of the first three phases (each phase being 10 cabins) of the project. The federal portion of the first 3 phases is $88,000 per phase, for a total federal reimbursement of $264,000. The next round of capital applications are due this fall through which the town hopes to fund phases 4, 5 and 6.
The Telluride-Mountain Village gondola system will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Dec. 20. Owned and operated by Mountain Village, the gondola is the first and only free public transportation of its kind in the United States and was originally built to help improve air quality while expanding the ski area. Approximately 2.61 million passengers ride the gondola annually and over 39 million riders have been transported since opening day.
The gondola operates roughly 287 days each year with routine maintenance scheduled during shoulder season months. Bastien said the gondola here endures more wear and tear than most other gondolas because it is used as public transportation as opposed to being used strictly for skier and snowboarder transport.
“Age, coupled with condition, were the primary factors in determining which cabins would be refurbished,” Loebe said. The first group of 25 cabins was purchased in 1992 and were eventually put into service in 1996 when the gondola was commissioned. “They have been in continuous service for the last 20 years,” Loebe said. “Over 100,000 hours, without a cosmetic makeover.”
Initially, Sunshine technicians were working on site but weather hindered their progress so they now remove three cabins at a time from the line and haul them to their warehouse in Grand Junction for refurbishing. Once finished, technicians return the refurbished cabins and pick up three more.
Before they began working out of the warehouse, the technician team conducted much of their work at Station St. Sophia where people would ask what they were doing and why they were doing it.
“They’d stay for a half hour or 45 minutes watching us and listening to what we had to say,” Bastien said. “People were just curious. People here feel like they own the gondola. It’s different here — not like when you are at a ski resort and you pay a ticket to ride up to the top of the mountain to ski.”
Bastien, 45, officially launched her business out of Whistler, British Columbia, in 1999. Three years ago she moved the business to Eagle, Colorado, and very recently moved the headquarters again to Grand Junction. Since moving to the U.S., business has exploded, she said. Sunshine has a franchise in Austria that also services Italy, Germany and France and has refurbished gondola cars across North America in ski resorts including Whistler-Blackcomb, Sun Valley and Vail.
“Nobody can restore plastic like we do,” she claimed.
As of today, cabins 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7 have been completed. Cabins 9, 10 and 11 are at the Sunshine facility in Grand Junction and are scheduled to be returned on Sept. 16. The town is on schedule to have the first 20 cabins completed when the gondola reopens for the winter season on Nov. 18.