So what are we to make of Denver’s nascent scheme to host the Winter Olympics in 2030? Using the simplest and least complicated lens available, let’s ask ourselves one question: Is it good for Colorado Springs?
On the plus side, businesses in the Pikes Peak region would get a hefty boost in the winter of 2029-2030. Hotels would fill up, bars and restaurants would prosper and Airbnb hosts would profit mightily. Colorado Springs might host some events, such as preliminary rounds in curling, figure skating and hockey. Site preparation might create a few hundred jobs in the two-year run-up to the Games, the Olympic Museum should see an uptick in visitor numbers and USOC officials would love the short commute to Denver (as opposed to the 10-hour flight to Seoul this year).
Our branding as Olympic City USA would give us great worldwide exposure, assuming that we don’t get tarred by whatever IOC/USOC/national governing body scandal(s) might emerge a dozen years from now. And it’d certainly be fun to be at the center of the sports world for a couple of weeks, and amazing to be within a couple of hours’ drive of the alpine events.
The good news is cheerfully obvious, while the bad stuff is a little subtler.
For example, we may choose to believe the Denver-centric Olympic cheerleaders when they claim that the Games will be entirely funded by some combination of sponsor money, IOC/USOC revenue sharing and private business contributions, but that’s unlikely. There certainly won’t be any targeted public funding via legislative appropriations, yet public funds will still be expended.
Ski areas along the I-70 corridor, likely including Copper Mountain, Keystone and Vail, will host the alpine sports. Interstate 70, as every Front Range skier/snowboarder knows, is a slowly moving parking lot on winter weekends, summer weekends and in bad weather of any description. The four-lane highway is still in its original 1960s configuration, thanks in part to the 27-year-old TABOR amendment to the state constitution that prevents the legislature from raising the state gas tax without voter assent. Widening the highway to six lanes and drilling a new tunnel to accommodate the new lanes would cost around $5 billion, or more than three times the annual budget of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
That may be an understatement, given that the budget for reconstructing 10 miles of I-70 through Denver is about $1.2 billion. That highly controversial project may hasten I-70 traffic through Denver, but it’ll just add more vehicles to the western gridlock.
The road needs to be fixed, an athlete’s village needs to be built somewhere close to the event venues, tens of thousands of spectators will need to be accommodated and a lot of bills will have to be paid.
Who will write the checks? I-70 could be rebuilt with a special transportation tax, or partially funded by tolls (e.g., two free lanes, four tolled). In any case, users and taxpayers will pick up the bills. The remaining infrastructure will likely benefit from funny money in yet to be determined ways (tax-advantaged affordable housing loans from quasi-public entities to construct the athlete’s village, for example).
Some of the spending may have long-term benefits, but much of it may have the effect of further skewing state transportation spending to benefit the Denver metro area and the I-70 corridor. We’ll get a few crumbs, but crucial regional projects may languish. In the next 12 years, it’d be nice to see Highway 24 between Colorado Springs and Buena Vista upgraded, I-25 six-laned from the Springs to Trinidad and Highway 50 widened from Pueblo to Salida. And what about Front Range passenger train service?
These are all worthy projects, and none should be sacrificed in order to host a world-class ski weekend. Our state will continue to grow and transportation infrastructure will have to be radically improved (including I-70). Can we really afford an Olympic binge?
So here’s the solution: Let Utah do it! They’ve got the infrastructure, the experience and plenty of snow. Driving to Utah to watch the games will be cheaper than hosting them. Absent Olympic stress, maybe our quarrelsome legislators will be able to figure out how to fund state transportation needs adequately, equitably and quickly. And if they want advice, they know where to go.
Just ask Utah.