Memorial Day marked the beginning of summer travel season, and despite rising gas prices, travelers were out and about to start what is expected to be a busy tourism season.
Last weekend, the Colorado Department of Transportation anticipated increased traffic due to the holiday, but snow, breezy conditions, rain and cold temperatures dampened many long-weekend plans for recreation in Summit County.
In 2021, over 166,000 drivers went through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels on Interstate 70. Traffic peaked on Friday, with just over 29,000 cars going through the westbound tunnel and approximately 15,500 going through the eastbound. By Monday, May 31, last year’s travel numbers flipped, with more drivers going eastbound than westbound.
This year, almost 153,000 travelers went through the tunnels. Much like last year, westbound traffic had its highest total on Friday, May 27 — with 26,414 drivers going through — and Friday topped the weekend overall with just over 42,500 drivers. The rest of the weekend remained stable with traffic counts between 36,000-37,000.
A winter snow storm stopped the town of Dillon from holding its annual Memorial Day Ceremony to honor military members who died while in active duty, and the snow Sunday night and Monday morning resulted in multiple closures of I-70 throughout Summit County due to accidents caused by the slick conditions.
Officials say high gas prices might have also affected travel plans this past weekend.
As of Tuesday, May 31, the national average for a gallon of gas is $4.62, which is 45 cents more than a month ago, and $1.58 more than a year ago. In Colorado, the current average is $4.27 for regular-grade gas, whereas last year’s average was $3.12. In Summit County, drivers are paying an average of $4.45 per gallon, according to data from AAA.
Colorado placed in the top 10 for highest weekly increase in gas prices in the United States, tied for first with Wisconsin at an 11-cent increase over the last seven days. Despite the increase, Colorado stayed out of the top 10 for most expensive markets.
Lower demand kept gasoline kept prices lower before Memorial Day weekend, according to a report from AAA, but domestic gas demand may again start to climb as drivers fuel up for the three-month-long summer travel season.
AAA estimates that nearly 35 million travelers hit the road for Memorial Day, the highest number since 2019, despite record prices at the pump. Last year, 33.4 million drivers and 2.41 million flight passengers traveled over the course of the weekend. This year also saw a dramatic increase in travelers opting for buses, trains or cruises — from 440,000 in 2021 to 1.3 million in 2022.
Earlier this year, tourism experts said they expected this summer to be a successful one. Across the county, sales tax revenue during ski season increased upwards of 20-30% in Summit County communities. In Breckenridge, the jump in February sales tax revenue was up about 38% over last year.
“So far, the pent-up urge to travel caused by the pandemic outweighs high pump prices for many consumers,” Andrew Gross, a spokesperson for AAA, said. “But 67% of drivers recently surveyed told us they would change their driving habits if gas hit $4.50 a gallon. That number rises to 75% at $5 a gallon. If pump prices keep rising, will people alter their summer travel plans? That remains to be seen.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation worked to alleviate travel woes by halting work on its construction projects that are aimed to improve the interstate in order to minimize traffic effects for holiday travelers, and the Mountain Express Lane’s westbound tolls were waived.
Certain seasonal roadways also opened over the course of last week and into the weekend, as well. Those include Guanella Pass, Independence Pass, Cottonwood Pass and Kebler Pass. Mount Evans Road, the I-70 Glenwood Canyon recreation path from No Name to the Dotsero trailhead and Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park remain closed.
CDOT launched its Pegasus shuttle system — which connects Denver to mountain communities on the Western Slope — during Memorial Day Weekend in order to reduce some traffic. Each shuttle seats 11 people with buses running every hour from sunrise to sunset, and Division of Transit and Rail Director Amber Blake said that this would help remove congested traffic on the interstate. Pegasus shuttles can also use the express lanes on the weekends, when traffic nearly doubles.
“One fully-booked Pegasus shuttle is the equivalent of removing six two-person vehicles from the road,” Blake said in a statement. “Multiply that by dozens of Pegasus trips each weekend, and we can double our part in mitigating congestion, and help make the drive to the mountains safer and more enjoyable. Moreover, this service aligns with our mission of improving transit options and integrating transit into Colorado’s Transportation System.”