“The people need to ride the bus”
by Crystal Kotowski
The Mountain Express fleet of 20 large and small buses brave epic winter storms, inebriated passengers and rowdy children—keeping the roads uncongested and subsequently safer. In January, Mountain Express transit manager Chris Larsen gave the annual update to the Mt. Crested Butte councilmembers, including potential plans to purchase more buses or to build a duplex to provide employee housing with its remaining funds.
Ridership shows steady growth
Increased ridership has been noted across nearly all of Mountain Express’s services. Through November 2016, buses carried 584,700 passengers, an increase of 3 percent from 2015. With extended summer service, summer ridership increased 6 percent from 2015.
“The summer service is going really well. We kept extending the summer season. This past summer we went all the way to September and we are looking into extending that into October,” Larsen noted.
The summer “Express Bus,” a direct route between the Four-way Stop and the Mountaineer Square every 20 minutes, has also seen a 58 percent increase in ridership. Only the Crested Butte South ridership is down from last year; Larsen noted that that numbers could be attributed to the increased RTA schedule.
Route schedules and expansion
Mountain Express reported it is once again providing six round trips per day from Crested Butte South to the Mt. Crested Butte transit center, three trips in the morning and three trips in the afternoon. With funding from the Crested Butte South POA, Mountain Express is working with the Gunnison Valley RTA buses to provide 17 round trips of service to Crested Butte South. Councilmember Danny D’Aquila wants to see the Crested Butte South bus get used.
“The beauty [of many stops] is that they are flag buses. If you’re at any of the flag stops along the route between Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte South [Riverbend, Riverland, Brush Creek, or the other subdivisions], you can flag the bus down, whether it’s a Mountain Express or RTA…. The people need to ride the bus,” noted councilmember D’Aquila.
There may be opportunities to increase service on the condo loops, which run every 30 minutes until 11 p.m. The Condo Express service will run from 11 p.m. until midnight. Larsen confirmed that the condo buses are facilitating the need, but could look into coordinating more buses to quicken the 15-minute wait time. “There are times when those buses are overcrowded… but they do run another condo bus if the others are full,” confirmed Larsen
For summer service, Mountain Express is involved in the Gothic Valley project to help with traffic congestion by possibly extending the route to the Judd Falls parking areas, with the possibility starting as soon as summer 2017. Larsen noted that Mountain Express is trying to expand to four routes a day to Gothic from the three last summer and is working with the Forest Service on a bus pullout and turnaround lane at that area.
Further, Mountain Express provided 56 hours of extra late-night service, carrying 2,175 passengers from December 31, 2015 to November 20, 2016.
Solid financials create opportunity
Larsen reported that Mountain Express’ financials are in good status. According to the annual report, projections for 2016 show net income after capital expenditures of $183,000. The board has set up $680,000 in operating reserves, providing for emergencies and cash flow delays. Larsen discussed the possibility of utilizing the fund balance to purchase a bus or affordable housing. MX has had discussions with the town of Crested Butte to build a duplex on one of the town’s affordable housing lots.
“We’re kind of going back and forth with that. We’re not there right now. The employees aren’t entirely in need of housing, but we know that could change really suddenly,” said Larsen.
Of the 20 buses, 14 have engines with more than 10,000 hours. With the age of the buses, repairs remain a major cost to Mountain Express at about $90,000 per year. However, the bus service has been adding buses to its fleet along the way.
“Our fleet is getting newer every year,” confirmed Larsen. Since 2013, three large buses and three small buses were purchased. Big buses cost $170,000 and small buses cost $140,000. Extensive Federal Transportation Authority funding has been secured for the purchases, covering 80 percent of the costs: funds were used to purchase three new buses in 2015 (two big and one small), one van and one small bus in 2016, and three new big buses in 2017. The remaining 20 percent of costs were derived from local funding from Mountain Express.
According to the Mountain Express capital plan, the bus service should be continuing to purchase at least one bus each year. Mountain Express will also purchase a new shop truck in 2017 that will enable mechanics to perform roadside repairs, and is looking into expanding its current facility.
Salaries were increased by 5 percent in 2016 and driver wages increased $.75 an hour; both salaries and driver wages will continue to increase by 5 percent in 2017.
The focus of the Mountain Express board is to meet growing service needs and to upgrade the bus fleet, the annual report reads. The report ended with accolades from the council to Mountain Express for its services.