NewsThe Front Range

New mayor thinks pay-to-play is the future of Manitou Incline

Author: Seth Boster, The Gazette - April 4, 2018 - Updated: April 4, 2018

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Incline enthusiasts race up the trail after the ribbon cutting and re-opening on Dec. 2, 2016. The Manitou Incline re-opened to the public after being closed for repairs for roughly three months. Improved safety, enhanced user experience, long-term sustainability and increased accessibility were the four major goals of the Incline project. Work included repair and replacement of damaged retaining walls, cleanup of rebar, construction of drainage structures, stabilization of existing ties and surrounding slopes. (Gazette file photo)

It was all smiles Tuesday at the Manitou Incline, where cameras captured advocates presenting a $10,000 check for maintenance of the Pikes Peak region’s most iconic trail.

But behind the smiles was worry, as the 100-year-old Barr Trail is being battered by more people using it to descend from the Incline.

Funds have lagged behind the work order, said Jennifer Peterson, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute. The nonprofit for years has done the heavy-duty upkeep, installing barriers on eroded hillsides and building fence posts to ward off switchback-cutting hikers.

The work — focused mostly on the trail’s bottom 3 miles, the stretch used by Incline returnees — has been funded by Manitou Springs’ government at about $40,000 a year since 2013, Peterson said.

But with a city budget shortfall looming, Barr Trail’s allotment is set for about $16,000.

That, with Tuesday’s $10,000 donation by nonprofit Incline Friends, “will help,” Mayor Ken Jaray said. “But not enough.”

“Long term, this ought to pay for itself, this meaning the Incline,” Jaray told The Gazette. “It ought to pay for the needs that are up here, pure and simple.”

Officials and advocates have tossed around the idea of a pay-to-play model since it was proposed in the Incline’s 2011 management plan. Since then, the former railway has garnered international fame and become the site of 250,000-plus workouts a year, as estimated by implanted counters.

Surveys show 75 percent of users come down Barr Trail, which also is packed in the summer with hikers summiting America’s Mountain. The trail’s degradation has been but one challenging effect of the Incline’s popularity.

Into his first year in office, Jaray is grappling with questions his predecessors tried to answer, such as how to manage parking.

He said he hoped for better results with recent changes to Barr Trail parking lot fees – revenue that goes to trail maintenance and pays for the free shuttle to the Incline. Now the trail’s long-distance hikers and Incline users will pay $5 rather than $40. That rate, combined with implementation of a reservation system, slashed revenues from $230,000 in 2016 to $125,000 in 2017.

But Jaray said money concerns are amplified this year with a $700,000 general fund shortfall anticipated. That’s partly due to the loss of tax dollars from the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which has closed indefinitely.

However controversial, the solution to repairing Barr Trail and affording the Incline shuttle could be easy, Jaray said.

“If you have more than 300,000 people who each pay a little bit? Not very much, that’s all I would ask people to do, to pay just a little bit. That’s all it would take.”

Jaray envisioned “some kind of fence” to enforce payment. “And sure, are people gonna jump over it? They might, but that won’t be the majority of people. And also, to just let them know, the money from here goes into here. I think most people, if they’re aware of it, if they’re part of the decision-making process, I think they’ll support it.”

David Adair, president of Incline Friends, wasn’t so sure.

“What we need to do is analyze our problems and find a correct answer,” he said.

The advocacy group has committed to help fund construction of an alternate return route from the Incline, providing potential relief for Barr Trail. Researching that possibility is a priority for Colorado Springs parks planners, who have remained mum on an Incline fee.

“This makes sense,” Adair said of Tuesday’s $10,000 check. “We probably should’ve been doing it sooner.”

Peterson said the Rocky Mountain Field Institute is seeking grant money to “get close to that $40,000 mark,” of previous annual funding for Barr Trail. A more appropriate mark would be $60,000 to $80,000, the institute found.

“This trail deserves better,” Peterson said.

Seth Boster, The Gazette

Seth Boster, The Gazette