Pie in the sky?: The Mesa Verde tram

For three decades, locals have dreamed of an aerial tramway that would whisk tourists from the Montezuma Valley to the top of Mesa Verde, attracting visitors and pumping new dollars into the economy.

But that dream looks like a money-losing nightmare, according to a recently released report on the tram’s feasibility.

A privately financed tram would lose $1.6 million a year, according to the study, done by BBC Research & Consulting of Denver. Though the gondola ride up the mesa would be a “noteworthy attraction,” it would probably not draw many new visitors to the area and could harm existing businesses, the study concludes.

“It’s kind of what I expected,” commented Kelly Wilson, chair of the Montezuma County Commission. He said the county had helped finance the study because it was time to “either put up or shut up.”

The park is conducting a comprehensive transportation study, and this was the chance to see whether a gondola system was feasible so it could be incorporated into the park’s planning, Wilson said.

Cortez City Manager Hal Shepherd agreed. “I really think it was money well spent,” he said. “It’s been talked about for 30 years – this seemed like a perfect opportunity. It’s good to get an outside person knowledgeable in the field to see what’s really possible so we know whether to spend time on this or move on to other projects.”

County Commissioner Kent Lindsay said he was “disappointed” to learn of the report’s conclusions but was glad the consultant had taken an unflinching look at the situation. “He didn’t sugarcoat it or sprinkle it with pixie dust, he told it like it was,” Lindsay said. “This would have been a good boon economically if it had been affordable, but you have to deal with reality.”

The tram study cost $28,000, Shepherd said. The city of Cortez, Montezuma County and the Retail Enhancement Program, funded by local merchants, had each contributed $10,000, while the Region 9 Economic Development District gave $15,000 and the town of Dolores coughed up $200.

Shepherd said the difference in cost would be returned to those entities on a pro-rated basis.

Less traffic and pollution

The tram, along with a new marina and other attractions at McPhee Reservoir, had been proposed as ways to attract visitors and keep them in the area longer. But while the proposal to make McPhee into a state park is proceeding full speed ahead, the tram appears to have sputtered to a halt.

“I think this puts it to rest,” Wilson said.

Not everyone agrees, however. Gary Shaw, who helped organize the Tramway Feasibility Committee that promoted the idea, said there may still be a way to finance a tram, although he admitted the prospects were slim.

“I personally think, with a tasteful development within the city limits of Cortez, there’s a way to finance this thing,” he said.

But the analysis by BBC Research paints a bleak picture of the tram’s feasibility.

Tentative plans were for the gondola to run from the valley floor about 5 miles southeast of Cortez up to the Far View Visitor Center, which lies 15 miles inside the park via the main road. The 12,000-foot journey could be completed in about 13 minutes, theoretically saving time over the steep, tortuous automobile route, which takes 45 minutes or more. The main entrance road would have remained open.

From Far View, visitors would use a public bus or transit system to tour the park’s spectacular ruins.

A tram would have meant less traffic and air pollution for Mesa Verde. But the economics just don’t make sense, the study concluded.

Optimistically assuming that the tram would be able to attract 25 percent of the park’s visitors during the peak five-month period from May 15 to October 15, the report figured there would be 48,000 gondola rides annually.

The tram system would cost $8.2 million to build, the study estimated, with another $5.3 million needed for improving the Far View Visitor Center, extending roads and utilities to the base area, developing the base, and conducting an Environmental Impact Study.

Allowing for operations and maintenance costs of $500,000 annually, $100,000 for marketing, and $60,000 for a concession fee to the park, and calculating that the $13.5 million in start-up costs would be financed at 8.5 percent over 15 years, the study calculated the tram would lose $1.6 million a year.

“That one-and-a-half-million-dollar loss per year, with a lot of unknown factors, is something we can’t overcome,” Shepherd said.

An expensive option

Despite its allure and novelty, the gondola ride would be rejected by many people for a variety of reasons, the report said, including fear of heights, preference for auto travel, and cost.

The study estimated that riding the tram would cost $15 per person, or $60 for a family of four – much more than the $10-per-car entrance fee.

Also, the 25 to 30 percent of the visitors who spend the night in the park campground or lodge would want their cars and belongings with them, the study said.

Shepherd agreed it’s difficult to pry Americans out of their cars. “We’re really tied to our automobiles, especially if you’re traveling cross-country,” he said. “You take so much with you, and then you buy souvenirs and valuables and you want some way to carry them back.”

Other obstacles the study identified were:

  • If a village of hotels, restaurants and stores sprang up around the base of the gondola, it would compete with existing businesses. On the other hand, the fact that the tram would probably operate just five months out of the year would discourage such businesses.
  • The idea of a tram extension that would go 6 miles from the valley floor into Cortez would cost $30 million to build, and the ride would be “long, slow, hot and unexciting.”
  • If visitors rode the gondola into the park and a wildfire that shut down the tram broke out, they would have no way to evacuate unless a fleet of buses and drivers were maintained in the park for emergencies, which would be “prohibitively expensive,” the study said.
  • The nonprofit Mesa Verde Foundation has purchased land near the park’s access off Highway 160 for the purpose of building a new curatorial facility to house priceless artifacts. A planned new visitor center will likely be located there as well, so if visitors wanted to see it, they would have to go there in their cars instead of the gondola.
  • Obtaining the necessary land and rights of way could be difficult.

Tying it all together

The town of Mancos had opposed the tram because it would have been based in or near Cortez, which Mancos town leaders feared would hurt their own businesses.

Shepherd said he didn’t understand their objections. “Our thought was, if this were feasible, it would increase visitor stays for the region from Durango to Dove Creek, and certainly in Mancos, Dolores and Cortez,” he said. “If we could get two or three nights out of a visitor to do the tram, the park, Lake McPhee, it would be a benefit to all of us. I felt if that was accomplished, it would improve their sales inside Mancos.”

Shaw said that was indeed the idea behind the tram. “I really thought it might be a means of tying all this together – the Anasazi Heritage Center, stagecoach rides, the (Ute Mountain) casino. This could be an anchor for tourists, get them to spend another night or so in the area.”

Shaw was disappointed in the study, which he said focused too much on basic figures and not on finding creative means to finance the project.

“We understood from Day 1 that at $15 a pop, that wouldn’t pay for it,” he said. “The nut that had to be cracked, if you will, was what could be built in relationship to this project that would make it financially feasible.”

He envisioned a possible transportation district at the base of the gondola that would feature hotels, theaters and shops, all of which would be taxed to help subsidize the tram.

Lindsay, though, doubts such an entity would be feasible. “We couldn’t even get a nickel sales tax on ten dollars passed to fix our roads,” he said, referring to a proposal rejected by voters Nov. 2.

But Shaw said locals need to “think outside the box” and see what could make the project work. “When a larger city builds a convention center, for instance, they may find some kind of unconventional financing.” He said perhaps some day Congress will consider a federal-private partnership that would fund a tram.

Gravy rather than the base

Shepherd, however, said the report means focusing economic-development efforts on other ideas. While tourism is important to the local economy, he said, he would like to see more emphasis on attracting industry.

“Right now, tourism is our base,” he said, “but we would like to turn that around and have that more as gravy than the base.”

He said he hopes more businesses such as Tuffy Security, which relocated to Cortez several years ago, will move into the county. “If we had 10 of those kinds of facilities, with 25 to 30 good-paying jobs apiece, the ups and downs of tourism wouldn’t affect us as much.”

Lindsay agreed, saying the area needs to look at improving infrastructure, “dressing up” Cortez’s Main Street, and fighting to establish an identity. “Economic development is tough because everybody in the nation is looking to coax in these different companies,” he said. “You’re in a pretty good-size ball game when you’re in this business. We need to take a real hard look at who we are and what we can offer.”

From December 2004.