"It shows a definite need"
The Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority’s expanded bus service between Crested Butte and Gunnison is a tremendous success. In fact, the bus service has become so popular, riders are regularly turned away because buses have been packed to the brim, officials say.
RTA director Scott Truex says the new bus service has been turning people away during busy times in the morning and afternoon, particularly on the weekends. Riders looking to travel north from Gunnison have also been turned away because the bus gets too full, he says. Some riders have been allowed to stand while riding the bus, but others haven’t been so lucky, he says.
Truex says he doesn’t have the latest numbers on ridership, but on Friday, November 30 the RTA bus carried more than 350 people along Highway 135.
The RTA used to contract with Alpine Express to provide the Gunnison/Crested Butte Shuffle service for a $2 fare.
Last fall, the RTA began pursuing several state grant opportunities to expand the service with new buses, more frequent trips, and no fare. The new service officially started on November 17.
Truex says with Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s Ski Free promotion and the recent snowfall, the bus has definitely seen more riders.
"We got hit with the perfect storm. There was all the snow, plus Ski Free, and we didn’t have the proper vehicles at the time," Truex says. The RTA has not yet received the four 40-passenger transit buses it purchased for the service earlier this year, and has contracted with Alpine Express to provide vehicles until the new buses arrive.
Truex says the fact that riders are getting turned away is both good and bad news.
"It’s a good problem to have, it shows a definite need in the community," Truex says. He says it’s bad that people are getting left behind, and standing passengers pose a safety issue. Not all of the Alpine Express buses are equipped with safety devices for standing passengers.
Crested Butte resident Jodi Handrich says she had to stand in the aisle after catching the 7:30 a.m. bus from Gunnison on Tuesday, December 11. Some people were turned away once the bus filled, she says. Handrich says the drive wasn’t too bad, but there were no rails to hold on to. Despite having to stand, she says the service is a great thing for the community to have.
Truex says the RTA has dipped into its budget to provide extra buses during busy times, but scheduling the extra buses can get complicated. If an extra bus is provided in the morning, an extra bus is needed later in the afternoon, he says. "My biggest concern is that we bring all these people up and then can’t bring them back down," Truex says.
RTA board chairman Chris Morgan says they also never know what size of bus will be used, as Alpine Express has both small 24-passenger buses and larger 40-passenger stage coach buses. He says the RTA is working with Alpine Express to get the bigger buses at the right times.
Morgan says the RTA’s new buses are still at the dealer in Denver, after a delayed delivery due to the recent weather.
Truex says two of the buses are now expected to arrive on Thursday, December 13. "We need a little time to train the drivers. If everything works out according to plan, they’ll be in service on Saturday, December 15," he says. The new buses are also designed to carry standing passengers. Truex says the two final buses will arrive in two more weeks.
But with Ski Free ending this weekend, Truex hopes the operation will smooth out soon.
During the formation of the new bus service, RTA board members considered charging a fare if the service became "too popular." Morgan says the board has abandoned that avenue for the time being.
"At this time we would like to see the service remain free. That’s how you’re going to get the most people out of their cars," Morgan says.
Truex says the RTA will discuss the ridership issue and develop a contingency plan for stranded riders during a regular meeting this Friday, December 14. The meeting will begin at 8 a.m. in Crested Butte Town Hall.