"We’re not giving up yet"
A proposed bus service between Gunnison and Denver that was originally expected to begin sometime this winter may not be operational until later next year.
During a regular meeting of the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) on December 14, RTA director Scott Truex said the only proposal received for the inter-city service was significantly above budget and the service would not be able to begin this winter as anticipated.
The RTA began pursuing a bus service to Denver following the loss two years ago of a similar service provided by Greyhound. That bus company’s withdrawal left several Western Slope communities without any means of long-distance public ground transportation.
In September the RTA was awarded a $186,500 grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) for use in an inter-city bus service. Following the grant award, the board initiated a request for proposals from transit agencies interested in providing the service.
During the December board meeting, Truex said only one proposal had been received, from the local transit business Alpine Express, and the cost estimate was significantly above budget. Truex said other letters of interest were received, but no other formal proposals. Because the RTA could not find a service provider that fit the budget, Truex said the service would have to be postponed until other solutions could be found.
Additionally, Truex said the RTA may not receive the grant monies from CDOT in this cycle and the state would have to find a different organization to award the grant to.
The RTA had anticipated the service would cost under $230,000. Truex could not comment on how far above budget the Alpine Express proposal was.
In addition to the grant money, the RTA budgeted $14,000 to provide the service, and had tentatively secured $28,000 in additional funds from partners that included Western State College and the Western State Foundation, Chaffee County, Park County, the City of Salida, Buena Vista and Poncha Springs. The service carried an anticipated fare of $25 and would run five days a week.
Truex said there is a way to afford the service based on the proposal received, but it would involve running a smaller bus with better gas mileage and no stops at Denver International Airport. "Even with a small van we’re looking at $250,000 to run this to Denver," Truex says.
However, after talking with the other funding partners, Truex said the smaller bus wasn’t a viable alternative. "(Chaffee County) was not interested in participating with a smaller vehicle unless we were only willing to sell a small number of seats," Truex said. He added that Park County wasn’t interested in using smaller vehicles at all.
On top of the cost of the service, Truex said the RTA, the lead agency in the project, would be ending 2007 with ground transportation expenses significantly above budget. That’s because the RTA has ramped up its in-county service between Gunnison and Mt. Crested Butte.
The 2007 RTA ground transportation budget accommodates five trips a day on the former Gunnison/Crested Butte Shuffle, but in mid-November a new service schedule was introduced (along with a new name) with 17 trips a day. The expanded service alone put the RTA $40,000 over budget, and, according to Truex, the RTA will have to dip into its general fund to cover the expense.
Furthermore, the RTA has been paying Alpine Express $500 a day to use their vehicles for the new bus service because the four new transit buses purchased by the RTA had not arrived yet.
Two of the RTA’s new buses arrived this week.
While it looks like the Gunnison to Denver bus service won’t begin this winter, Truex said after the meeting there’s still a possibility the service could begin later in the summer or fall of 2008. Truex says he’s trying to work out grant arrangements with the state to ensure that funds will be available. "We’re trying to get creative with CDOT," he says.
During the meeting Truex said desire for the service is still apparent in many communities, and if the RTA isn’t able to manifest a bus service to Denver, a private transit organization may eventually fill the gap. Truex said the private entity would be just as eligible for the CDOT grant since the grant must now be passed on to another agency.
RTA board member and Mt. Crested Butte mayor Chris Morgan says if that’s the case, the RTA would still be willing to contribute to the service the money they had allocated. "We’re a service-providing organization. We just want to see that bus happen," Morgan says.
At the end of the meeting the RTA board directed Truex to continue exploring options for the Gunnison to Denver bus service.