A shuttle awaits at Hiawatha Gardens, the parking lot popular among regulars of the Manitou Incline and Barr Trail that has been free for years. Parking will be $1 an hour starting April 1.

A new fee at a Manitou Springs parking lot, popular among Manitou Incline and Pikes Peak trail regulars, is the latest focus in a years-long dilemma regarding traffic in the little town.

For years known as Manitou's last free public parking lot and also the biggest, spots at Hiawatha Gardens will be $1 an hour starting April 1. This is where the free shuttle is based, ferrying visitors through downtown and up Ruxton Avenue to the Incline and Barr Trail, which also shares the corridor with the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.

A recent presentation to Manitou's City Council cited the train's return in 2021 and El Paso County's soaring population as reason to bring parking and traffic "to the forefront of the city's management concerns."

Roy Chaney, Manitou's deputy city administrator, has been tasked with those matters. Attempts to reach him Wednesday were unsuccessful.

At a City Council meeting this month, he said parking fees "are not necessarily about making money, but about how to control the occupancy rate where you want it."

He added: "If we don't control that, we increase our cruising problem, which is what we've been facing for years."

"Cruisers" drive by full parking lots and curbside meters in search of spots deeper into town, adding to traffic along Manitou Avenue and Ruxton Avenue, the narrow, residential street where a 2015 study suggested 300 vehicles on average roam every hour.

That's "way too many," Chaney told City Council this month. "There's many problems associated with that, from livability for residents, to the environment .... We need to make sure we try to prevent that."

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The upcoming rate at Hiawatha Gardens represents one attempt. The kiosk at the parking lot displays instructions for how people can add time from their phones while away, but the hope is that fees spell "quicker turnover," Chaney explained to city councilors.

Some wondered about a reservation to park. Chaney said "efficiency" was the worry — that spots could potentially be vacated and go unused for an unused reservation period or when a patron leaves early.

"I think the goal should be to limit the number of cars," City Councilwoman Julie Wolfe said in the meeting. "If that means we require advanced reservations because there's a lot less driving around and polluting, but the downside is we might have a couple hours a day where a parking spot is paid for but is sitting empty, to me that is preferable."

But there is an Incline-related promise to consider.

After contentious debate last year, Manitou leaders signed an agreement with representatives from the Incline-owning city of Colorado Springs to launch a free reservation system aimed at capping hourly hikers. For hikers not arriving to trailhead attendants by foot or bike, that agreement included proof of parking at Hiawatha by kiosk receipt — an effort to concentrate parking at the lot on the edge of downtown.

Kurt Schroeder, the Colorado Springs official involved in the talks, said the Hiawatha rate did not infringe on the deal to keep the Incline free to access.

"Not a concern," he said, "because (parking and traffic) is Manitou Springs' purview."

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While opposed to the reservation system, advocacy group Incline Friends is not altogether opposed to the change at Hiawatha.

"People have to be realistic," said Bill Beagle, the group's president. "You can't run a city without money."

But critics have emerged on the Incline's bustling Facebook fan page. Posted one: "Just frustrating as someone who frequently trains on Barr Trail for the (Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon), which are often long days, to pay a fortune for parking too." 

Manitou Mayor John Graham told The Gazette it was uncertain how the new revenue would be spent.

In a 2018 study that outlined the feasibility of a proposed parking garage at Hiawatha Gardens, researchers figured a two-story concept with 283 spots could generate $792,400 a year, assuming an hourly $1 fee and other factors. Graham said it was "way too early" to talk about a parking garage, an idea that agitated city councilors at a recent meeting.

"I am adamantly, adamantly opposed," said one, Judith Chandler. "I do not want to be a playground for Colorado Springs or other municipalities where they come here on the weekend, and everything we do is just focused on tourist attractions. We have got to balance what we provide our residents with peaceful living."

She continued: "I think there may be a time we say, 'Our town is full today. We don't have any parking.' That will be one of the signs we put out."

Data illustrate the crunch in the town that counts 5,350 residents and 450,000 visitors a year. According to city hall tallies, Hiawatha accounts for 158 of Manitou's 613 total public parking spaces, including curbside.

At this month's meeting, City Councilwoman Susan Wolbrueck said she understood fellow leaders' concern for residents. She also alluded to Manitou's self-described friendliness, a quality recently heralded by the visitor center welcome sign.

"I just want to remind everybody that so much of our revenue currently comes from tourism. We were founded as a place to visit," she said. "We can talk a good game about how we don't like to be disrupted, but we really don't like to be disrupted in the revenue department."

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