“We’re all learning how to swim after we jumped in”
The new Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) bus service to and from Gunnison has been hitting several speed bumps lately, including issues with engine trouble, weather delays and traffic law.
Although steps are being taken to solve the problems, what the RTA has been learning is that some people don’t like a bumpy ride—even when it’s free.
The RTA bus is a free transportation service carrying travelers between the Crested Butte area and the City of Gunnison with 17 daily round trips.
In the fall of 2006 the organization began pursuing several state grant opportunities to fund the service, along with four new 40-passenger transit buses. The service began November 17.
During a regular meeting of the RTA board on Friday, January 11, RTA executive director Scott Truex said there was good news and bad news to tell about the new bus service. The good news, he said, was three of the RTA’s four new buses would finally be up and running together.
The bad news was all three of the buses have had mechanical trouble since they arrived from the dealership, Truex said. The problem lies in a ceramic filter that helps regulate the buses’ emissions, similar to a catalytic converter.
According to Truex, the filter is designed to capture certain emissions as required by state law, then automatically clean itself by recycling the buildup. Unfortunately, the self-cleaning feature has not been performing very well, Truex said, and the trouble may be caused by the altitude and cold temperatures. The filters are a new and complex technology, which also adds to the trouble.
“If they get clogged you have to take it off, and the only place that can work on them is in Denver,” Truex said. The RTA brought a specialized engine technician in from Grand Junction, but he was unfamiliar with the ceramic filter system, especially when already clogged, and he could not fix it, Truex said.
“It has been a very difficult repair problem since we are so far away from the Cummins experts,” Truex said. Cummins is the manufacturer of the buses’ diesel engines.
Board member Skip Berkshire asked what assurances the RTA has that the filter problems won’t reoccur.
Truex said the mechanics have been re-programming the computer-controlled filter in order to get it working properly.
When the filter clogged on the third bus, fresh after coming from the dealer, Truex said the dealer’s mechanic came up to re-program it. A fourth bus, anticipated to arrive soon, is being pre-programmed at the dealership in an effort to prevent the problem.
Truex said the engine problems are troubling for the service users who need reliable transportation, and for the service provider, Alpine Express, which has had to use its own vehicles when the RTA’s buses have gone down. “We’ve put a lot of stress on Alpine Express by not having these vehicles up and running,” Truex said.
“There have been complaints—some are valid, some are not,” Truex said of regular bus riders. He said a letter published in the local newspapers made some good points. “One comment was maybe we bit off more than we could chew… We took a gamble and maybe we shouldn’t have, but the ridership has been phenomenal,” Truex said.
RTA board president Chris Morgan agreed, saying ridership “has been four times what we originally thought.”
Truex says the service “will get better.” Regarding complaints about late buses and schedule-keeping, Truex said it would be premature to make schedule changes in light of the recent engine trouble and the bad weather.
The bad weather causes all of the traffic along Highway 135 to slow considerably, and even traveling in a car won’t be much faster than the bus, Truex said.
Morgan agreed, and said the situation was similar to the Mountain Express bus systems in Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte. “Mountain Express is having trouble keeping their schedules, too,” he said. “I don’t think any jurisdiction in the county has been able to keep up with plowing… We need to see how (the RTA bus) operates with the right equipment, outside of the weather.”
Alpine Express president Woody Sherwood suggested the RTA should develop a storm schedule to use during inclement weather.
Morgan said that would be a good idea, but it would take time to familiarize the service’s current riders with a different time schedule. “I think all of us are learning how to swim after we jumped in,” he said.
Gunnison/Crested Butte Tourism Association director Jane Chaney said, “It’s not so much when the bus picks you up. It’s when it arrives at the next destination,” referring to people trying to keep a work schedule or meet appointments.
Another issue with the schedule is the number of stops in Gunnison. During an earlier conversation about the RTA tax renewal, Morgan said he wasn’t sure if the RTA bus would be able to continue its full route through Gunnison—eight stops—and still make it to Crested Butte on time.
RTA board member Jonathan Houck said the city was considering funding its own circulator bus. “We’re moving into the realm of that being a necessity,” he said. He also said that at some point the RTA would have to consider instating a fare on the Gunnison/Crested Butte bus. Since a large percentage of the service’s riders come from Gunnison, Houck suggested the RTA divert some of the fare revenues into improving the service within the city.
Finally, the service also makes stops at the intersection of Highway 135 and Cement Creek and Brush Creek roads. Truex said the state patrol had informed Alpine Express that making stops along the highway in acceleration or deceleration lanes would be considered a traffic violation, and the drivers would be ticketed if caught. Truex said the drivers are still stopping on occasion at the two intersections when requested or when people are waiting at the stops, traffic and safety permitting.
Recognizing the lack of an adequate turnaround on either Brush Creek Road or Cement Creek Road, during their December meeting the RTA decided to pursue having the county Public Works Department put down road base along the highway’s edge, as well as plow the additional section during the winter.
RTA board member Hap Channell said he looked into the situation and learned that the county has to clear all highway improvements with the Colorado Department of Transportation. Even if the county had clearance to build a bus pull-off, there is too much snow and the county’s Public Works Department is too busy handling it to conduct road work this winter, Channell said.
The next meeting of the RTA is on Friday, February 8 at Crested Butte Town Hall.