Free ski buses to mountain resorts? Ace King thinks it's an idea whose time has come

In seventeen years of avid snowboarding, Ace King has heard all the bright ideas about how to fix the weekend traffic logjam on I-70. Monorail, zipper lanes, double-decker lanes -- all costly, all dubious as hell, and none of them right around the corner.

What King lusts for is a bus.

Not a smelly, cramped circulator, but a luxury motor coach. Dozens of them, in fact. All comfy, reliable -- and free.

King first started thinking about ski buses a few years ago, after a friend invited him to join a bunch of apartment complex buddies on a chartered bus headed for Copper Mountain. The ride was cheap and relatively hassle-free.

"It was the best, most comfortable way to go," King says. "We watched a Warren Miller film on the way up, drinking coffee and juice. On the way back, we had beer and wine and, odd as it sounds, The Lion King. I loved it."

There are, of course, several commercial bus and van companies that shuttle folks to the slopes on weekends, picking up at Denver International Airport or ski rental shops and charging anywhere from $26 to $89 round trip, depending on destination. But King, a 49-year-old technical writer, believes he's figured out a way to boost bus ridership dramatically -- enough to have a genuine impact on the winter weekend crunch that crawls from Idaho Springs to the Eisenhower Tunnel and sometimes all the way to Vail.

Imagine, he says, fifty buses, each carrying a full load of fifty passengers. Imagine each bus making two runs a day. That's 5,000 riders who would otherwise be heading up in cars. Demand would be high, he insists, because the buses would be free, with the resorts (who would be guaranteed a number of customers out of the deal) and other potential sponsors underwriting the costs, with maybe some start-up money coming from the state.

"When they started talking about building a train up there, I thought, 'How do they know they're going to get the ridership?'" he explains. "The more I did the math, the more this started looking like something that could work better than the train. If you look at the other options that have been proposed, this is by far the cheapest. And once it gets going, it would be self-sustaining."

King figures the first year's costs of the bus fleet would be around $8 million, with no more than half of that coming from public funds. He acknowledges that he hasn't yet done a full feasibility study, and his figures for how much traffic reduction might actually be involved are a little slippery. (He's revised his initial estimate of 25 percent to 16 percent, but state figures for winter Saturday traffic just from Denver to Summit County alone stand at 48,000 person trips, which suggests something more like a 10 percent reduction if the buses run at peak capacity.)

But the free-bus idea has generated some mild interest at the Colorado Department of Transportation, King says, and he's launched a campaign of letters to the editor and a website to promote the idea.

CDOT recently unveiled its own elaborate fix for I-70, a $20 billion proposal that includes a train and a lot of road work. King is skeptical about that, as well as the zipper-lane proposals.

"I grew up in southern California, so I guess I'm enamored of freeways," he says. "I would like to see the road widened and upgraded. But the price tag is hard to swallow."

A free bus, he maintains, would be a lot easier on the digestion.

More from our Things to Do archive: "The Denver Roller Dolls's new party bus -- and their new, unnamed Wynkoop beer."

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