In a season that has seen too many roads be closed because of weather, there's a strange comfort in hearing that Trail Ridge Road across the top of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado has been shut down for the season. It means there's optimism for other entry routes into the popular mountain town of Estes Park.
Park officials made the announcement Tuesday that the highest continuous paved road in the country would be unavailable until next spring.
At one point, it had looked like Trail Ridge Road might be needed for much longer this year to provide the necessary deliveries for the residents of Estes Park. After September's flooding, it was relatively unscathed, meaning park officials could allow for one of the few times in its history travel by commercial vehicles across the park. In fact, the road was closed in late September not for weather, but to allow a two-lane-wide rock crushing machine to be moved into the Estes Valley. It still sits at Lake Estes, creating the crushed rock necessary for roads to be rebuilt in the Big Thompson Canyon and down U.S. 36 to Lyons.
In reality, Trail Ridge Road is a toll road whose fees are included with park admission. The park's budget includes money that is spent to get the road cleared in the springtime and occasionally thereafter as needed, but it simply isn't economical to pay for the steep costs of trying to keep it open all winter. The exposed tundra above timberline make the road susceptible to steep drifts and horribly dangerous driving conditions even in spring and fall. Winter would be a nightmare.
As Colorado comes to grips with the costs of rebuilding highways in canyons, its leaders should consider whether any of those roads should have a toll component. While residents of the canyons and Estes would have free travel, a nominal fee from the flatlanders and tourists might help to defray the huge expenses being incurred and build up a nest egg for the next time, because there likely will be a next time. Tolls were how the pioneers were able to make the first roads, and they are still used much more frequently in other parts of the country.
By the time Trail Ridge Road opens late next spring, residents of Colorado will know much more about the true costs of mountain travel. But because of the hard work of crews working on a Dec. 1 deadline, they won't have to have suffered a Trail Ridge winter.