City scrambles to absorb thousands of sightseers after Cog Railway closure 

Taking the high road

click to enlarge Thousands of Cog riders will have to reach the top of Pikes Peak a different way now. - COURTESY VISIT COS
  • Courtesy Visit COS
  • Thousands of Cog riders will have to reach the top of Pikes Peak a different way now.
The March announcement that the Pikes Peak Cog Railway will close for as long as three years, and possibly forever, surprised the city, the U.S. Forest Service, the Army, the community and perhaps Cog personnel as well.

“Well this was a surprise!” wrote one partner in an email to employees of Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain, the city enterprise that runs the Pikes Peak Highway, the day after the Gazette broke the story in mid-March. (The daily is owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, who also owns the Cog and The Broadmoor hotel.)

Pikes Peak Highway manager Jack Glavan responded, saying, “We are figuring that out. We anticipate more traffic and congestion, but don’t think it will impact the project. More later.”

That project is a $50 million overhaul of the summit, including construction of a new 39,000-square-foot Summit House and other facilities such as the Army’s High Altitude Research Laboratory and Colorado Springs Utilities’ communications building.

Thus began the city’s scramble to figure out how the 19-mile highway, already traveled by more than 400,000 a year, might accommodate some 50,000 more vehicles, and up to 150,000 more people, this summer, even as construction gets underway on the peak. The obvious answer is shuttles, a strategy the city already planned to use to reduce traffic and parking woes during the summit construction. But now the city is jammed for time as it hastens to hire contractors for the shuttle, which could gobble up whatever revenue gain might stem from more traffic due to the Cog’s closure. (While not affiliated with the city, Gray Line Colorado has announced it will start running bus tours up the highway on April 15, with car parking downtown.)

The Cog marked its 125th year in 2017 when it toted 266,208 passengers to the 14,110-foot summit. It was a 15 percent decline from the 306,371 passengers who made the trip in 2016, according to documents obtained by the Independent via an open-records request.

Cog officials have said the shutdown is due to maintenance issues. Yet, there was little warning such an extreme move was imminent. An email to Pikes Peak city officials on Sept. 14, 2017, for instance, doesn’t suggest major maintenance needs had been identified.

“We have decided to expand our little project on the summit at the end of our track and so we will need after all to have rock delivered up to the top,” Cog section foreman Wallace Wilmot wrote, adding that 12 tons of rock (a truck load) would be delivered to shore up the train’s landing retaining wall.

On Oct. 27, a city employee notified others via email that “the Cog has closed for the season.” It was an unusual move — Glavan says in the past the Cog normally shut down shortly after New Year’s Day and resumed operations in early March — but there was no indication that it was permanent.

And that meant that the city had no time to plan for a sudden influx of drivers on the peak’s highway. The road’s entrance has three gates, but Glavan says three additional rangers will handle cash transactions in order to speed up access. “That’s a choke point,” he says. “Once they start driving the highway, it starts spreading out over 19 miles.”

There’s also talk of encouraging tourists to avoid the busiest time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Even without the additional load, traffic backed up to U.S. Highway 24 last summer, prompting some tourists to turn around and leave. “We’ll be working with the state patrol about traffic control,” Glavan says. “What we’re hoping is with increased capacity at the gate, then we minimize that line on the highway.”

Then there’s the parking problem. After construction begins in June, the summit will have only 100, rather than 200, parking spaces, which will be limited to ADA compliant vehicles and those with kids in car seats, Glavan says.

Everyone else will need to park and take a shuttle from Devil’s Playground, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb pit area about 7 miles from the gate, or the Glen Cove parking area, which is between mile markers 11 and 12. Those lots together can handle roughly 500 vehicles.

Although more cars means more admission money — cost is $15 per person — the shuttle will add to costs. “The shuttle could cost $1 million,” Glavan says. “To handle this increase will be another million. We may get extra money, but it will be offset by handling the visitation during construction.”

The city soon will issue a request for proposals for shuttle services, drivers and parking attendants with plans to have the contractor on board by late May, he says.

Construction on the new facilities atop the mountain, a National Historic Landmark since 1961, will span more than one tourist season and be funded with $13.5 million from the Pikes Peak Highway fund balance, plus bonding and donations. About the time it’s completed, the city will face another hurdle when its current Forest Service permit expires in 2020. A new master plan might be required as well, Glavan says, noting the last one was drafted in 1992. A new environmental study could also be a component of the renewal process.

Meantime, some visitors will likely be disappointed to find the Cog is on ice. A Travel Channel crew got permission last fall to film a feature about “three ways to summit America’s Mountain — driving, cog train and hiking — while showcasing the stunning sights along the way,” according to an email.

Watching that show might be the closest anyone gets to a Cog ride for quite a while.

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