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Mountain Express Gothic bus service a question mark in future summers

This summer set like last year

by Mark Reaman

While there will be regular bus service between Crested Butte and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic this summer, there appears to be some question about service and funding for future summers.

Mountain Express service this summer will start Monday, June 13. “There will be three round trips on Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Tuesday and Wednesday there will be four round trips,” explained transit manager Chris Larsen. “The Gothic schedule can be viewed on the Mountain Express website: mtnexp.org.”

Mountain Express chairperson and Crested Butte councilman Roland Mason said the transit board does not want to disrupt service to Gothic this summer so it will definitely run on a similar schedule to last year. “We are not sure if RMBL will help fund the route,” he told the Crested Butte Town Council Monday night. “The goal is to have a conversation about next summer with RMBL and the director, Ian Billick.”

Billick, who was not at the meeting, told the Crested Butte News that he too wants to have the conversation about future service and confirmed that RMBL is open to help fund the summer service this year.

Mountain Express is funded through sales tax collections in both Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte. Given the recent increases in the local tax, the transit agency is finding itself on firm financial footing and has expanded routes to not just Gothic but to places such as Crested Butte South as well.

Billick offered some history of how the bus service to Gothic came into being. “In 2006 the county assembled a task force to look at how to manage the high volume of traffic on the Gothic Road. The main outcome was a community decision to try running buses to Gothic,” he explained. “We built a schedule around RMBL’s outreach programs because it was an efficient way to establish the feasibility of getting buses up the valley above Mt. Crested Butte while maintaining strong ridership. The county, RMBL, Crested Butte, and Mt. Crested Butte all helped fund the route. Those municipalities have all pulled back their funding. RMBL will also be scaling back support.”

Mason said the towns cut back that bus funding because the Mountain Express bus service is already funded through money generated through town sales tax. He said the town was essentially paying twice when granting money for bus service on top of money allocated from sales tax for bus service.

Larsen said it costs about $19,000 per summer to run the Gothic route. RMBL contributed $6,250 to the service last year.

Billick said another factor in the RMBL thought process is that RMBL has been spending significant time and money managing growth impacts in the drainage.

“As overall pressures on the valley have skyrocketed, RMBL has increased spending to manage impacts for which there are not funding sources, including signage, road improvements, staffing, and managing human waste,” Billick said. “Given that Mountain Express is in strong shape financially, ridership on the routes has been strong, and they are one of the few entities to benefit financially from increased tourism through the sales tax, we hope they will continue to operate the buses. If they discontinue the buses, or run the buses at times that don’t work with our programs, we’ll do our best to adjust.”

Mason said the bus system is indeed strong financially at the moment thanks to increased sales tax collections and he understands the road has become significantly busier in recent summers.

“The finances look good now but if sales tax ebbs and flows, this level of service to Gothic could be on the chopping block if sales tax goes backwards,” Mason said at the council meeting.

He said there is some question about how the RMBL kids’ programs will proceed in the future and that would impact quantity and timing of service to Gothic. “That could change things immensely if the kids’ programs are cut back,” he said. “But the bottom line is we want to work with the stakeholders out there, whether it is RMBL or the Forest Service or whoever.”

Billick said everything is connected and the RMBL programs have grown enough that asking parents to drive kids to the site will put a lot of vehicles on an overcrowded road. He said it was also unclear if the lab could safely support that many drop-off/pick-ups of kids as programs started and ended.

”Mountain Express has suggested we should charge the parents more, but we already operate the program at a loss. It’s also unclear that the financial burden for managing the high volumes of tourist traffic on the Gothic road should largely fall on parents,” he said.

“We’ll see what the board decides to do with the bus schedule next year. Given how general traffic has increased and the number of kids participating in the program, we worry about putting that many more cars on the road,” he continued. “I’m also not certain we can safely support that many drop-off and pick-ups happening in a relatively short time. So we’ll do our best to adjust, but something may have to give. We don’t control the buses or the general tourist use, so our options are limited.”

According to Mason, a subcommittee of the Mountain Express board hopes to meet soon with Billick to clear the air and discuss the future of RMBL’s participation in funding the service.

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