More busses, fewer flights for ski season
Some big changes in transportation infrastructure are on the way this winter, with a boost in ground transportation options and a loss of air travel options.
The Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) will launch its free shuttle between Gunnison and Crested Butte this month, using four brand-new transit buses, thanks in part to a grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
"We’re hoping to have the first (bus) next week," says RTA director Scott Truex of the buses being prepared in Denver. Truex says the bus may have an inconspicuous RTA label at first, but local art and identification will be added eventually.
If the buses do not arrive soon, Truex says, the RTA will use one of Alpine Express’ transit buses. Either way, Truex says, the first bus will leave Gunnison and head toward Crested Butte at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, November 17.
Truex says the exact timing of stops in-between is still being ironed out, but it will take about an hour for the bus to travel between Gunnison and Mt. Crested Butte.
After making stops in Gunnison near Safeway and Western Stage College, the bus will head up-valley along Highway 135, making stops at the intersection of Ohio Creek Road, Almont; the intersection of Cement Creek Road (Crested Butte South); the intersection of Brush Creek Road (Skyland); the Four-way Stop in Crested Butte; and will end with the bus loop in Mt. Crested Butte.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) chief marketing officer Ken Stone says the new RTA bus will provide a great service for the people of Gunnison County who want to get to the ski slopes, as well as CBMR employees commuting to work.
In addition to the regional bus service, Truex says he’s optimistic about a proposed bus service between Gunnison and Denver, also made possible by state grant funding. The RTA is still looking for a transit business to provide the service. Truex says ideally this new service will begin in January, but, "It depends on how fast we can execute the contract with the provider." Until a provider is selected and the contract finished, Truex says, the RTA won’t see any money from the state.
Mountain Express will once again offer the free bus between Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, but the small bus that circulated around the town of Crested Butte will not be seen this year. Mountain Express and Crested Butte officials decided to eliminate the circulator service earlier this spring, citing lack of interest and financial constraints.
Although there will be more options for ground transportation this winter, residents seeking a plane ticket out of town will have fewer options. Airline flights have been cut back in an effort to improve the overall passenger load on each plane. Last winter’s flights were 61 percent full on average, Truex says. Because the planes were not full, the RTA and CBMR had to pay financial guarantees to the airlines to make up for lost performance and the airlines chose to cut back service for this winter.
"We want to end up in 70 percent load factors. If we can meet those goals we can expand in the future," Truex says of improving air service.
This winter, the RTA has ensured that United Airlines will operate two daily jet flights from Denver and American Airlines will operate a single daily jet flight directly from Dallas, Texas. United Airlines will no longer operate propellor planes to the regional airport.
During a RTA board meeting on Friday, October 19, the latest booking data from the airlines showed that the scenario was working, and load factors had increased 2 percent from the same time last year. Stone said this was seen as good news.
But the following week the situation changed, and Stone says the latest booking information shows the load factors are now a percentage point down from last year. A percent may not sound like much, but, Stone says, overall tickets sold are down by 2,000 from the same time last year.
"When you have fewer options to bring in flights, it brings less passengers," Stone says, adding that there’s a lot of work ahead to fill the passenger gap.
Even though there are fewer planes making the trip to Gunnison, Stone and Truex believe the use of jets instead of propeller planes on United Airlines from Denver will make a positive difference.
The RTA’s airline consultant Kent Myers says the propeller planes will be entirely switched over on December 15.
"It’s a real positive for us to have jet service," Stone says, adding that jets are not only more comfortable, but more reliable in winter weather.
Truex agrees. "I think it’ll be a better experience for those on the plane," he says.
In addition, Stone says American Airlines may give more options for plane size in the future. "Next year we’ll look at a smaller plane with more frequency," he says.
The next meeting of the RTA is on November 9 at the Gunnison County courthouse at 8 a.m.