Steamboat Springs It's not your imagination: traffic is getting worse in Steamboat Springs and surrounding areas.
And the problem is not one of increasing tourism at least not solely. Commuting workers are filling up local roadways as well. In fact, a recent study by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association and Colorado Mountain College found that more than 84 percent of local workers use their cars to get to work. That figure jibes with national statistics.
According to a study by the Sierra Club in October 1999, the average American driver spends 443 hours every year behind the wheel. That's 55 eight-hour work days, or 11 work weeks. Admittedly, those numbers are greatly influenced by large metropolitan areas throughout the country, but Routt County is not free of transportation problems and increasing congestion.
The Yampa Valley Partners Community Indicators Project 1999 report says that traffic counts along U.S. 40 and Colorado 131 have increased each year since 1990, with the most serious congestion occurring in Steamboat Springs where traffic levels are at 83 percent of roadway capacity on Lincoln Avenue.
"Efforts to improve capacity include consolidating lodging shuttle services with Steamboat Springs Transit and increasing SST service through additional buses and more routes," the report states.
Curiosity, coupled with an affordable housing needs assessment completed 10 years ago, prompted the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association to join forces with Colorado Mountain College Professor Stephen Craig's statistics class and conduct a work force and commuting study. Sandy Evans, executive vice president of the chamber, said her organization wanted to study the impact the commuting work force has on traffic and housing issues.
"If we had affordable housing would you be living here or do you have other reasons for not living here?" Evans asked rhetorically. "We want an understanding of why they're not taking public transportation or carpooling, what incentives their employers are offering. Then we'll talk to the city transit department to see what we can do to improve that."
Results of the study revealed that 84.9 percent of 1,105 Steamboat employees surveyed use their cars to get to work.
Of those commuters, 61.5 percent use their cars over other methods of transportation for convenience. The reason why cars are the most convenient method of transportation for the majority of employees in Steamboat is an important question, and a complicated one. Answers involve complex, sensitive issues that are all-too familiar to Routt County residents things like public transportation, affordable housing and rural sprawl.
Many of those who drive to work without carpooling said it would take more convenient times, more convenient stops and more direct bus routes to get them to ride the bus instead of using their cars.
"More convenient times and more direct routes equal a more expensive transit system. I'm not aware of any magic bullets that solve transit problems without investment," city Transit Manager George Krawzoff said.
The city increased its transit budget from $700,000 in 1996 to $1.3 million this year. "This produced more direct routes and more frequent routes," Krawzoff said. "Passenger counts increased from 600,000 to 1 million."
Krawzoff said he wishes the authors of the survey had worked with SST to formulate the questions.
"SST's regional and city services are very different. Service to south Routt County is provided by Alpine Taxi under contract with Routt County," he said. "Interpretation becomes difficult when comments about all of these services are lumped together.
"The car is certainly popular. It's hard to say much more because everyone (in the survey) is lumped together. How many of these people could use the bus if they wanted to? If the 3.4 percent using the bus represents everyone within a quarter mile of a transit stop, then I'd declare victory. This surely isn't the case, but how can we tell?"
Of 4,937 Yampa Valley employees surveyed, 64 percent live in Steamboat. The second largest group are those who live in Craig and commute to Steamboat for work 376 of them. More than 200 Steamboat employees live in Hayden, nearly 200 live in Oak Creek, and just more than 100 come from Clark and other parts of north Routt. Employees also drive from Steamboat II, Stagecoach, Milner, Phippsburg, Yampa, and unincorporated Routt County to work in Steamboat.
"Having 64 percent of our employees living within the city limits is pretty good," Krawzoff said. "You might hope for more, but Aspen has been trying to meet a goal of 40 percent for years and is not getting there. We may look back at these as 'good old days.'
"The distribution of employees among the other communities presents a problem for transit providers. The Steamboat II-Milner-Hayden-Craig corridor has the most people so this supports SST's directing regional service here first," Krawzoff continued. "The low densities in Clark and Stagecoach make effective transit unlikely. Van pools may eventually be established."
Transportation and affordable housing are integrally related, Regional Affordable Living Association Director Rob Dick said.
"Congestion isn't the only bad effect of commuting. Quality of family life is also affected. If people are spending a lot of time on the road driving to and from work, it affects the entire family," he said.
Survey results also indicate that more than half of those who commute to Steamboat said they would live in Steamboat if there was more affordable housing. Half those surveyed commute to Steamboat from outside of town precisely because of a lack of affordable housing in town.
"I'm not sure I believe this," Krawzoff said. "People tend to say they are living the way they do by choice and I think more would live in town given the opportunity. Even if I'm wrong now, time will make me right. Commuting loses its luster as gas gets more expensive while the traffic gets worse and traffic jams turn a 30-minute commute into an hour or more. Trust me I lived in Basalt and commuted 22 miles to Aspen. It was no problem in 1980 but an incredible pain by 1997. We're just beginning the process here."