Editor’s Note: This story by Aaron Calvin was first published by the Stowe Reporter on May 25.
The Agency of Natural Resources will let Stowe Mountain Resort continue its paid parking program indefinitely after the resort provided the state with data asserting its positive effects on traffic during the 2022-2023 ski season.
Agency secretary Julie Moore said she was “generally pleased” with the direction of the traffic management metrics provided at a May 5 meeting with representatives of the resort and its parent company, Vail Resorts.
The data showed a significant increase in carpooling and public transit ridership, and general reductions of traffic at key junctures in Stowe.
Moore promised to continue monitoring the program’s efficacy to determine whether charging non-carpooling resort visitors on weekends and holidays to use the resort’s primary parking lots was actually responsible for a reduction in traffic or whether other factors, like the season’s erratic snowfall, played a major role.
“Two points of data don’t really make a complete set,” she said. “We want to make sure that this actually continues to trend in the right direction.”
Moore and the agency have now turned their scrutiny toward lease fees paid by Stowe and six other resorts located or partially located on state-owned land.
Emails to state treasurer Mike Pieciak and Kevin Gaffney, commissioner at the Department of Financial Regulation, sent by Moore in March reveal that the state is currently in the early stages of conducting an audit of these resort operations to ensure that the amount they’re paying the state is accurate.
The impetus, according to Moore in these emails, concerns resorts like Stowe and Killington, whose use of multi-resort season passes has complicated a formerly straightforward calculation.
As questions about how the use of such passes factors into the state’s revenue have not been adequately answered, Moore said she determined that an audit was required to determine whether or not fees these resorts pay to the state accurately represent the profits they are making.
“When you have a pass that could be purchased in Vermont and used at resorts across the country, or a pass purchased out of state that can be used at resorts in Vermont, the math isn’t quite as neat and tidy,” Moore said. “We both want to make sure that the state is getting its due, but also that each of the resorts that have those different types of pass programs is applying a consistent methodology (to their lease fee calculations).”
Outgoing Stowe Resorts general manager Bobby Murphy told the Agency of Natural Resources of Vail’s plan to introduce paid parking at a meeting last July, but Moore has always insisted that the state saw this winter as a pilot for a trial program.
Parking at the resort during the last ski season cost $30 on weekends and holidays at the primary parking lots before 2 p.m. unless a vehicle arrived carrying four or more people.
Now, after reviewing year-end traffic management data compiled by Vail and presented in early May, Moore said she’d seen enough to give indefinite approval to the program going forward, though she was clear that the state will continue to closely monitor its effects and require consistent communication from the mountain’s operators.
In a report provided to Moore, the resort claimed it smashed ridership records on Green Mountain Transit, whose bus service throughout Stowe had been expanded as part of the program.
Vail claimed to count a 48% growth in year-over-year ridership numbers on Green Mountain Transit. January and February both saw year-over-year growth in bus-riding skiers in Stowe of over 50%, and the slower months of December and March still saw a year-over-year ridership increase of over 30%.
This data may be exaggerated by other circumstances, however, as Moore noted in pencil on her copy of the traffic data that, pre-pandemic, Green Mountain Transit buses saw approximately 80,000 riders a year. The 93,000 riders Vail recorded this season may represent a huge boost from the nearly 63,000 riders recorded in 2021-2022, but the number actually represents a more modest increase of just 16% when looking at pre-pandemic ridership.
The Vail data also showed that year-over-year northbound and southbound traffic numbers on Mountain Road in Stowe were lower, but only by about 7% overall.
March even saw a 6% growth in overall traffic, but the resort pointed out that traffic was lower on dates it considers to be peak ski days by 14%.
Vail also supplied data regarding vehicles that traveled longer than 20 minutes to reach the resort, but Moore asked for more specific data in the future.
The state asked that Stowe make no policy changes around the 90-minute time limit at the Barnes Camp parking lot, despite concerns around access to public lands and criticism about the policy that arrived in Moore’s inbox throughout the ski season, except to provide signage that specifies the time limit only applies during weekends and holidays.
Moore also said Vail would take a closer look at how to make the sale of season-long parking permits a smoother process after the instant sell-out of the passes caused consternation from longtime Stowe skiers who were left out in the cold.
Resorts that operate on public land pay the state 5% of their annual revenue related to ski lifts that were erected on state land. That money is then used to subsidize Vermont’s state parks system.
In an email to financial regulator Gaffney sent on March 24, Moore wrote that, since resorts like Vail-owned Stowe and Killington, owned by the Utah-based Powdr Corporation, had switched to multi-resort season passes — the Epic Pass and the Ikon Pass — the state had received questions regarding how use of such passes affected calculations when it came to lease fees.
Vail paid the state a lease fee of $1.2 million for operating Stowe Mountain Resort on public land in the 2021-2022 season.
Moore pointed to repeated questions and inquiries from Alan Kovacs, a Massachusetts lawyer and longtime skier at Stowe who has become the public face of the backlash against Stowe’s paid parking policy, as an example of just one critic of the ski area’s approach to parking.
A previous public records request also found that agency heads like former Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation head Michael Snyder also pressed for more clarity around how Epic Pass sales factored into the lease fee.
On March 14, Moore reached out to Pieciak to verify that the lease agreement signed with Vail Resorts when the corporation purchased Stowe Mountain Resort in 2017 gave the state the authority to audit the resort’s finances to ensure a fair rental agreement. Pieciak agreed and recommended outside consultants to help with the audit.
Along with Stowe, Vail-owned Okemo Mountain Resort, neighbor Smugglers’ Notch Resort, Killington, parts of Jay Peak and other resorts with smaller holdings operate on state-owned lands and will be subject to an audit as well. The state did not provide a potential time frame when the audits will be conducted.
When asked to comment on the audit, Molly Mahar, president of Vermont Ski Area Association, was supportive.
“Revenue from multi-mountain passes is typically allocated to a ski area based on visitation generated by the pass product,” Maher said. “I think it is important for the state to understand how revenue from both single-mountain and multi-mountain passes factor into an area’s lift revenue for calculation of their lease payment.”
Vail spokesperson Courtney DiFiore acknowledged the corporation’s awareness of the proposed audit and emphasized that it would include other ski resorts in Vermont, not just Vail-owned operations.
Disclosure: Aaron Calvin’s partner works for Smugglers’ Notch Resort.
Correction: The original version of this story stated that resorts that operate on public land pay the state 5 percent of their annual revenue, money that’s then used to subsidize Vermont’s state parks system. However, Doug Hoffer, the state auditor, said the actual rental terms “are not nearly so generous. The leases limit the lift-related revenue base to lifts erected on state land.”