After I became a full-time Colorado Springs resident last September, I visited the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and suggested an ambassador program for the Manitou Incline. Little did I know that eight months later I would be embroiled in an inter-municipal battle worse than anything I experienced in 30 years of civic leadership in Pittsburgh, my previous home.
The Manitou Chamber referred me to the Incline Friends, and for the last month I’ve been an ambassador of a different sort. I was at the Incline for 10 days in May, explaining to disappointed prospective users why it was closed and that they could see equally great scenery and get just as exhausted on Barr Trail or Ute Trail.
Along the way, I’ve made friends among Manitou’s city staff, police and council. They’ve appreciated my volunteer help, my sympathetic ear, and my willingness to assure the world that Manitou leaders are not grinches who hate the Incline.
Meanwhile, the Incline Friends have maintained good relations and open communication with both cities despite their obvious differences.
The gulf between them is gaping. Colorado Springs, whose parks and recreation department oversees the Incline, sees a recreational treasure that should be free for everyone; Manitou Springs sees itself as bearing the brunt of the Incline’s unforeseen popularity (nearly 250,000 uphill trips in 2019) and possessing little leverage to change the situation.
Perhaps partly due to our impetus, the two cities have resumed discussions, resulting in the interim reopening proposal Manitou Springs Council was set to consider at a work session on the evening of June 11.
The bigger challenge is solving the long-term puzzle.
After years of suffering quietly, Manitou Springs shook the landscape last month by proposing a reservation requirement and perhaps a fee for Incline use. Manitou’s goals are to mitigate Ruxton Avenue traffic, reduce parking woes that affect both nearby residents and downtown businesses, recoup Incline-related costs (primarily the free shuttle), and reduce its fire department’s roughly 20 annual Incline rescue calls.
We want to help Manitou Springs address its frustrations. Our work would be a lot easier if everyone loved the Incline. Thus our main disappointment with Manitou’s elaborate proposal — which calls for deploying three staff and still wouldn’t block people from accessing the Incline at points other than the base — is that it would sharply reduce access for Incline lovers without solving Manitou’s problems.
At a May 26 council work session, Manitou staff projected potential net annual revenues of over $800,000 from a $5-per-user Incline fee. (Strangely, after promising to reduce Incline usage, they estimated revenue based on 2019 usage figures.)
Our preliminary analysis tells a different story. It indicates that (post-pandemic and once the Manitou Springs Cog Railway is operating) the proposed reservation/fee system would reduce Incline usage by 30 to 40 percent; cut out-of-town Incline tourism by 15,000 people a year, with significant negative impact on Manitou businesses; remove just 6 percent of Ruxton traffic; and have minimal effect on downtown parking — all while barely covering its costs or perhaps even losing money.
One crucial weakness of the proposed reservation requirement is that it would primarily affect local users — even those who ride the shuttle to the Incline or walk up Ruxton, causing no traffic disruption.
We are working with Manitou toward better solutions, such as suggested donations, improved signage, and better shuttle promotion. But the best way to dissuade Manitou from limiting Incline use is to remove the irritations. So, when the Incline reopens, please — unless you know there are open spots at Iron Springs Chateau or the Barr Trail lot — never drive on Ruxton and don’t park downtown. Use the shuttle or walk up.
If we all do that, I think we will discover that Manitou leaders aren’t anti-Incline grinches after all.
Bruce Barron is board secretary of the Incline Friends. Learn more at inclinefriends.org.
Note: This column has been updated to include the June 11 Manitou Springs Council work session.