Steamboat Springs Steamboat Springs Planning Director Tom Leeson hit the nail on the head last week when he said, "You can't pave your way out of this problem."
Leeson was, of course, referencing proposals for a highway bypass of downtown Steamboat. Those plans - as they have in previous years - are capturing the attention of residents frustrated with increasing traffic congestion in Steamboat, particularly in the downtown corridor.
While we understand those frustrations, discussions about a bypass aren't particularly meaningful until we know if it's feasible from an engineering standpoint and what the approximate cost of the highway might be. Additionally, an analysis of current Steamboat traffic patterns and habits is needed to determine whether a bypass would even solve downtown congestion.
In the meantime, we think there are more practical options for reducing congestion and improving traffic flow.
Local transportation issues made the headlines again last week when the City Council, spurred by preliminary plans from Steamboat 700 developers, made them a meeting agenda item. The proposed Steamboat 700 development west of Steamboat could include as many as 2,000 homes, and the likely impact on local roads wasn't lost on the council members.
"With west Steamboat and the anticipated growth, we've got a challenge - a huge challenge," Councilman Towny Anderson said. "We have to increase capacity, that's the bottom line."
During the City Council meeting, resident Steve Elkins proposed a bypass over Emerald Mountain. A similar bypass has been suggested by resident John Fielding.
The substantial cost of such a project and its impact on Emerald Mountain notwithstanding, we're not convinced a bypass would solve the problem it intends to alleviate - downtown congestion. There are no current studies that have examined Steamboat traffic and the habits of area motorists, who we suspect occupy the majority of vehicles traveling through downtown. We also have our doubts about the number of motorists who would use a bypass to skip downtown Steamboat - a tourist destination - while traveling along U.S. Highway 40. Steamboat doesn't have a problem with too many motorists trying to get from Kremmling to Craig; it's usually here they want to come.
There are plenty of congestion-reducing measures that could be implemented in Steamboat, and at far less cost than a bypass.
Changing the habits of motorists will do as much to abate traffic concerns as perhaps any other measure. This is an area where Steamboat can - and should - look to other mountain communities who have dealt with similar issues. In Aspen, paid street parking and a downtown parking garage have been instrumental in reducing traffic. Paid parking is a logical step for Steamboat to take, and one we believe will change the habits of local motorists but not affect visitors who come here with the intent to shop in our stores and dine in our restaurants.
Downtown employers could create incentives for employees who use public transportation or bike or walk to work. The city should push the Colorado Department of Transportation to install left-turn signals at downtown traffic lights and improve the timing sequence of those stoplights. The city also should continue to find ways to improve and bolster its transit system.
Certainly the list of traffic-reducing measures must include the widening of U.S. Highway 40 from 13th Street west to the Steamboat 700 development, if not all the way to Steamboat II and Heritage Park.
These are the kinds of measures we believe could have an immediate and lasting impact on Steamboat's increasing traffic congestion. Let serious discussion of a bypass commence when the more practical alternatives have been exhausted.