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Mountain Express expanding early winter schedule and adding new buses

Part of overall picture of growth

By Alissa Johnson

If you’ve noticed a white bus making the rounds through town, it does not mark the end of artist-painted shuttles. Mountain Express has selected a design for the vehicle, but the lateness of the season requires that the bus be painted next spring.

A white bus might seem out of place next to vehicles like the cow bus and the mountain bike bus, but in many ways it speaks to continued efforts by Mountain Express to grow service and meet transportation needs at the north end of the Gunnison Valley. The organization is adding three new buses to its fleet this fall and growing year-round service.

Transit manager Chris Larsen explained that among the changes, Mountain Express will run its full winter and summer schedules longer. The organization is also helping the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority provide bus service to Crested Butte South this winter and working with countywide partners to consider summer service to Judd Falls. A shop expansion is also under the initial stages of consideration.

The changes come as Mountain Express seeks to keep its fleet in good shape and meet a growing demand for bus service.

“We have buses that are from 1992,” Larsen said. The typical life expectancy of a bus is about ten years. “We got behind when we built [the current shop], so we’re trying to catch up,” said Larsen.

In addition to adding three buses, Mountain Express will retire at least two buses this fall and winter. In September, the board of directors also selected three new designs for the condo bus that’s already been seen about town and two town buses that are expected to arrive this fall.

“We just don’t have the time to paint them because we want to run them before we put them into service and get the bugs out,” Larsen said.

This winter, Mountain Express is also doing away with its early winter bus schedule. Instead of having reduced service early in the season, the full schedule will run from late November through the end of ski season. For the town loop, that means buses every 15 minutes through midnight. The condo loop will run every 20 minutes through 11 p.m.

Larsen said Mountain Express implemented the early winter schedule around 2009 because of declining sales tax and admission tax in Mt. Crested Butte, which funds Mountain Express, and decreases in ridership.

“We’re back to a point where we’re financially stable and ridership is increasing, too, so we decided to run the full schedule. I’m really happy about that. It got confusing for passengers and the drivers: Which schedule are we on today?” Larsen said.

Mountain Express will also help the RTA provide winter service to Crested Butte South this year by providing six trips a day at times when the RTA bus is too full to pull into the subdivision. The full schedule, including Mountain Express and the RTA, will provide 12 round trips a day for Crested Butte South and is available at www.mtnexp.org. The hope is that by providing more frequent bus service to Crested Butte South, ridership will increase as the service becomes more convenient.

As far as summer service goes, Larsen said Mountain Express will continue to offer the express bus between Crested Butte and Mountaineer Square from late June through the middle of August. The full summer schedule will run through the end of September, an extension over this year. Originally, the 20-minute schedule ran through Labor Day.

“This year we extended that service to September 20, and sure enough it was busy. Ridership increased 14 percent this September from last September,” Larsen said.

Mountain Express is also continuing discussions with countywide partners to consider providing bus service to Judd Falls. The idea is to extend its three trips to Gothic to the popular trailhead, but some things need to be figured out in order to make that service possible.

“We need to have a turn-around and make sure no one parks in front of it so the bus can get in and get out. If we get up there and a car is parked in the way, then what do we do?” Larsen said.

While that discussion is ongoing, one thing that is becoming clear to Larsen is the need to expand the Mountain Express shop. The current shop was built in 2009 and has five bays. With 18 to 19 buses, the majority must be parked outside year-round. That’s fine during the summer but hard on the buses during the winter.

“The cold temps are really hard on the buses. What I’m looking to do is get more indoor storage space because right now we have enough space to keep buses inside that are going out in the morning,” Larsen said.

Larsen would like to add another five-bay shop and hopes to work with a grant consultant and secure a grant to study current and future needs as well as consider funding options.

While that is a discussion in its beginning stages, there’s no doubt that there’s already a lot happening at Mountain Express—something to remember next time you see a white bus circulating between the towns.

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