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Paid parking idea percolates for Garden of the Gods, pilot program could begin this summer

March 12, 2018 Updated: March 13, 2018 at 9:03 am
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Traffic backs up at the Balanced Rocks at Garden of the Gods on March 11, 2018. Parking spots were at a premium on a beautiful day for tourists, many on Spring Break. Colorado Springs City Council will soon be talking about how to relieve congestion at Garden of the Gods. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Put up a parking lot? That question lingers as Colorado Springs decision-makers contemplate the future of America's favorite city park.

Nobody claims to have a simple remedy for Garden of the Gods' worsening summer traffic congestion. But one option presented Monday night - deemed by advocates as sensible though problematic - would place rows of vehicles in the postcard image taken from the visitor center.

After nearly a year of study and listening to stakeholders, a city-hired consultant recommended that people park in 400 spaces to be created in the Rock Ledge Ranch field by the Garden's main entrance. Visitors then would be shuttled into the park in an effort to relieve traffic and parking congestion from May through September.

About 50 people attended the public hearing Monday night at the Westside Community Center.

One man asked, "What did you guys do to advertise this?" He noted the contrast between millions of visitors a year vs. the small audience at the hearing.

City parks director Karen Palus said the Garden of the Gods Foundation will decide how to proceed, but no further public process is expected.

Foundation President Jan Martin said it's the city administration's call on how to go forward with the park.

Pending an agreement to contract a shuttle service through the Garden of the Gods Foundation, the scenario could be tried this season, Palus said. Martin said a pilot program "makes sense."

"We ought to try something," Martin said, echoing the many who have scratched their heads over what to do with 1,335 acres that get almost 6 million visitors a year.

The 400 spaces would come closer to meeting the 600 extra needed, as found by the foundation-funded consultant, Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. Parks officials said the lot would be laid with gravel and spots marked with timber blocks.

But the vision of that lot filling and expanding concerns Hank Scarangella, president of Friends of Garden of the Gods and a member of the city's Parks Advisory Board. He said he'd be OK with a trial run to a certain extent.

"If it's a couple of hundred spaces, trying it out at Rock Ledge is probably something worth doing," he said. "But if you figure you've got 400, 500, 600 cars a day parking there, then the area gets destroyed very quickly and the long-term solution, if that's it, would have to be to pave that area, which would be a terrible eyesore. It would contradict the whole spirit of the master plan and what the (National) Natural Landmark requirements are."

At Monday's open house to present the recommendations, Palus assured people that "if we pave anything at any point in time, we would go through a full-blown conversation and discuss that then." She told The Gazette she would oppose paving.

Nobody wants that, Scarangella said, "but that's the obvious and only logical solution other than off site."

In previous meetings, consultant Volpe posed three other recommendations, including using parking lots at Holmes Middle School, Coronado High School or both.

But what about when school is in session during May and August? Though the park isn't as busy then as in July, it still attracts thousands of vehicles a day. On summer weekends, an estimated 8,000 vehicles come through the Garden.

Other options with unsorted logistics of their own could be using a commercial lot near 30th Street and Garden of the Gods Road or buying other land.

How the city could pay for the shuttle service, with an already squeezed budget for parks, also hasn't been determined. One idea is to charge for some of the park's current 728 parking spots - "to incentivize people to park outside" the Garden and use the shuttle, Martin said.

That likely would be highly controversial, though. Charles Perkins' family deeded the park to the city in 1909 on the basis it be kept free and open to all forever.

"We have the ability to charge for parking, it's just access (we) can't charge for," Palus said, emphasizing that hikers, cyclists and motorists would never encounter a toll station.

Volpe National Transportation Systems Center also recommended building a handicapped-accessible trail into the park from the main Gateway Road. "Vehicle free" hours or days could be tried as well.

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