June 17, 2009
There is only one major problem with Manitou Springs' plan to start charging $5 per car in the Barr Trail parking lot: Manitou doesn't own the lot, Colorado Springs Utilities does.
And now Utilities wants some of the cash - or maybe all of it.
The 32-car lot is packed nearly year-round with hikers going up Pikes Peak or Manitou Incline. The parking fees could easily top $100,000 a year.
"Utilities wants a say in how money is allocated," Utilities spokesman Steve Berry said Wednesday. "We have an obligation to make sure we are representing the interests of our ratepayers."
Manitou officials say the money should stay in Manitou to help ease the worsening traffic crunch.
"The best solution is to give the resources to the entity that is saddled with this in its backyard," said Manitou Mayor Eric Drummond. "We could manage it to make it better and more convenient for everybody."
Both sides say negotiations are still under way, but since ultimate control of the lot lies with Utilities, it is likely that it will have significant say over the fate of the fees.
The misunderstanding dates to 1981, when Manitou Springs leased the lot for $1 for 20 years, according to Manitou City Planner Michelle Anthony.
The lease included an agreement that Manitou could renew it for another 20 years simply by sending a letter to Utilities.
"We are still looking for that letter," Anthony said. "But it appears that the agreement lapsed and nobody realized it for years on either end."
At least, no one realized it until there was more than $100,000 in the balance.
"When they started talking about charging a fee, that's when Utilities got involved," Berry said.
Originally, Manitou planned to use some of the money to pave and maintain the parking lot, while pouring the rest into city parking projects, possibly including a shuttle bus and electronic signs at the base of Ruxton Avenue to let hikers know when upper lots are full, Drummond said.
Utilities has other plans.
Utilities officials wouldn't say what those plans could include, but an informal proposal by the utility given to Manitou leaders called for some money to go to stabilizing the crumbling Manitou Incline, which lies above a Utilities water pipeline. Any extra money might go to Project Cope, a charity that helps low-income Utilities customers pay their bills.
Any final plan would have to be approved by the Colorado Springs City Council, which acts as the board of directors of the publicly owned utility.
Already, some local trail users are criticizing both plans.
Mountain runner and trail advocate Matt Carpenter said the Incline deserves some of the parking-lot funds, but so does Barr Trail.
"Ninety-eight percent of people who go up the Incline come pounding down Barr Trail and are tearing it up," he said.
He called for more transparency and public involvement in the planning.
Manitou City Councilwoman Aimee Cox, who voted against fees for the parking lot, agreed that any plan should reinvest in the trails people are paying to use.
"It is very rare, at trailheads in Colorado, that you would pay a fee where a portion doesn't go back into sustaining the resource," she said.
Officials in both cities said the parking-lot negotiations will not impact plans to legalize use of the Incline.
A lease agreement should be finalized within a week or two, local officials said.
"It is too early to know where this is going," said Colorado Springs City Councilman Scott Hente, who just heard about the issue Tuesday. "I have heard four different scenarios about how the money will be spent, and they are all different."