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RTA juggling the win of increased ridership with full bus issues

“The more buses we run, the more people ride”

By Cayla Vidmar

Increased bus ridership is both a plus and an occasional problem for the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA), which increased the number of winter bus trips up and down the valley from 17 trips last season to 25 trips this season. The RTA board juggled public comment regarding the issue of full buses and riders being left behind at the January 11 meeting, with the reality that if the convenience of taking the bus increases, so will ridership.

“December ridership was a record at 29,353 riders … which was up by 31 percent from last December,” said RTA executive director Scott Truex.

Though this record is exciting for board members because it represents a need in the valley being met, increased ridership comes with its own issues. One such downside is riders being left behind, as was the case on New Year’s Eve day, when a record three buses in a row were full and unable to accommodate waiting riders.

Truex explained that on December 31 an unexpected problem with a larger capacity bus—a coolant leak that kept the bus out of rotation for the entire morning—necessitated the use of a smaller, 20-passenger bus, which couldn’t accommodate the waiting passengers. “We did have about 85 people left behind [in the month of December] of the 29,000, so .3 percent, which is disappointing for those 85 people, but it’s a reality,” said Truex.

The full buses attracted three residents of the Gunnison Valley to the meeting to voice concerns about passengers being left behind. Mark Trautman of Crested Butte South handed out a letter detailing multiple times he witnessed full buses leaving 10 to 12 people at bus stops from Crested Butte South to the Crested Butte Four-way Stop. Trautman told the board, “We’ve had a number of situations where buses have been full. Some of those were in January.”

“It appears to us that the RTA buses are filling with students from WCU, preventing other residents from boarding,” states the letter Trautman handed out to the board. He noted that the Crested Butte South POA pays the Mountain Express $16,500 for bus services, to fill in when the RTA does not stop in Crested Butte South. In the letter, Trautman requested the board to look at how WCU might be asked to supplement the bus service or provide their own bus service for university students.

Lynn Havel, a Gunnison resident who teaches ski school at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR), said even though he doesn’t have an issue getting a seat on the 7 a.m. bus that picks up in Gunnison, by the time the bus reaches Almont, the bus is often packed. Havel said other ski school instructors have missed the buses in the past, and “we were in a bind without instructors because they were left behind.” He noted that many of those left behind are J1 employees, who come to the United States on a visa to work and are most often employed by CBMR in the winter. He said most J1s do not have vehicles, making the RTA bus the only option they have to get to work.

While the point of offering more bus stops throughout the day is to increase convenience, unfortunately the downfall is dealing with full buses. “The more buses we run, the better the schedule, the more convenient it is for folks for put it into their schedule, so more people ride,” said RTA chairperson John Messner. Truex said, “In the mornings, we run every 15 minutes, so if there is a full bus, you don’t have to wait as long until the next bus.”

In response to public comment on how to address the issues of full buses, Messner said, “We’re limited by the percentage of sales tax we’re able to collect, so within that we’re certainly doing everything we can to expand and adjust and evolve service to meet the needs of residents.”

Truex echoed that sentiment, saying, “The other limiting factor is the number of buses we own.”

Truex later wrote via email, “we will do our best to have the largest capacity buses on route during the busiest times. Other than that, there isn’t much we can do at this time. We will take a look at revising the winter schedule in June for 2019/2020.”

Spring schedule to include more trips in 2019

The RTA decided to increase spring bus trips from eight to 13, and will be changing the evening pick-up in Mt. Crested Butte from 5:10 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. in the spring and fall, giving employees working in Mt. Crested Butte five more minutes to get to the bus after work.

Erica Mueller, community relations representative for CBMR, expressed her concerns about the bus schedule, saying that the bus leaving Mt. Crested Butte at 5:10 p.m. is a really tight turn-around for Mt. Crested Butte employees who get off work at 5 p.m., and if that bus is missed, the next bus is an hour later. The board decided to push back the Mt. Crested Butte late-afternoon departure time in the spring and fall by five minutes, to 5:15 p.m., giving people a bit more time to make it to the bus after work. That will push back the bus schedule by five minutes for the rest of the evening.

In an effort to continue to increase schedule consistency and convenience for valley-wide residents, the spring bus schedule will match the summer schedule, with 13 trips. The board will decide in June whether to increase the ride schedule in the fall as well. Truex said this increase would cost the RTA $135,000 to $140,000, and in the case of an economic downturn, they would no longer be able to fund the extra trips in the spring.

The board was in favor of having more than eight trips in the spring season, and board member Leia Morrison said, “We’ve built reliance, so it doesn’t seem fair to the workforce to go from 25 to eight trips in the spring.” Landon Ogilvie, CEO of Alpine Express, anticipated some blowback should the board adopt an increased bus stop schedule, and then have to take it away in the event of an economic downturn, but said he is happy to help in any way he can.

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