Twenty one years ago this December, a first-of-its kind gondola system opened between Telluride and Mountain Village in one of the world’s great mountain towns. The 3-stage Garaventa CTEC gondola cost $16 million to build but is completely free to ride. Thirty-nine million passengers later, this unique system operates 275 days each year and 19 hours per day. The lift features three haul ropes and cabins interline between sections 1 and 2, from Oak Street to Station St. Sophia and Mountain Village. Section 3 further connects Mountain Village Center to Station Village Parking. The Town of Mountain Village owns and operates the gondola (at a cost of $4 million a year) with funding from Telluride Ski & Golf, the Telluride Mountain Village Owners Association and San Miguel County. The parties in 1999 agreed to fund the gondola through 2027, but with over 100,000 operating hours the existing machine may not last until then.
To give you an idea how critical this transportation link has become to people who live, work and visit Telluride, dates of operation are announced three years in advance and a fleet of buses replaces gondola service whenever down time reaches 30 minutes or more. Custom lightning protection on towers maximizes up-time year round. The gondola’s aggressive operating schedule makes upgrading an aging system challenging. A $6 million overhaul completed in 2007 and 2008 replaced many of the systems moving parts in phases.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation agreed to fund an engineering study of the gondola due to its crucial role in public transportation. Not surprisingly, Doppelmayr submitted the winning bid to perform the study and released their findings last fall. The 239-page report looked at adding system capacity, transitioning to level walk-in boarding, replacing major components and/or rebuilding the entire system. Russ Oberlander of Doppelmayr concluded ultimately that, “past and continued maintenance, along with the capital replacements and upgrades of the Mountain Village Gondola system could allow the system to run indefinitely.”
At the time of construction, each section could move only 350 passengers per hour at 1,000 feet per minute. Over time, CWA has supplied additional Omega III and Omega III XL cabins to bring the system to 920 passengers per hour for Sections 1-2 and 660 pph for section 3. The simplest and most affordable option to increase capacity is to add 18 additional cabins, bringing all three sections to their maximum capacities of between 1,070 and 1,200 passengers per hour. Unfortunately, these cabins would still require a step up rather than providing today’s standard of level walk-in boarding. At $35,000 per cabin, this option would total $638,000 before options like seat heating, public address, cabin Wi-Fi and lighting.
Option 2 is to replace all 59 cabins and implement level walk-in boarding with the option to boost capacity above 1,200 pph at the same time. Doppelmayr would fabricate shorter-than-normal hangers accommodating taller cabins to dramatically improve passenger comfort. Grips could be re-used if capacity remained below 1,200 but a larger diameter rope and new grips would be needed on sections 1-2 at higher capacity.
Towers make things complicated as an upgrade of the cabins would be considered a major modification by the Colorado Passenger Transportation Safety Board and trigger additional scrutiny. CWA’s Omega IV LWI cabins are significantly heavier (1,592 lbs. empty) with more surface area than the current models. The report notes, “The current foundations, tower masts and increased sheave loads would not pass the current design requirements with the increased loads from LWI cabins.” Any capacity upgrade above 1,200 could re-use structural components and tire banks but would require a new drive train, brakes, bullwheels, deflection sheaves and controls. The upgrade could also utilize Doppelmayr’s recovery concept, used on urban systems globally, with a ring and pinion setup and emergency bullwheel bearings to all but eliminate the possibility of a rope evacuation. The cost is significantly higher than option 1, jumping to $14 million for a capacity of 1,200 pph and $18 million to achieve 2,400 pph.
Option 3 is a total rebuild that could take up to a year. A new Doppelmayr gondola with open air terminals would cost between $18 and 24.7 million depending on capacity. This does not include new terminal buildings or modifications to existing ones. Both Northstar at Tahoe and Sunshine Village have been able to build new terminals within existing station buildings and it’s possible Telluride could do the same.
The Mountain Village Town Council has yet to act on the results of the study and will surely engage other stakeholders in the community as 2027 inches closer. In the meantime, the gondola opens for its 21st winter of free rides on November 18th.