Friday, December 4, 2020

Bus systems limited by state response to COVID increases

Scheduled passenger increases nullified

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

For now, a thing of the past: Crowding onto a painted bus with barely enough room to stand and maybe grip a handlebar overhead while riding up to the resort for a powder day.

But buses will run this winter, maintaining the more socially distanced passenger numbers they have kept all summer and fall to keep coronavirus from spreading. The two mass transportation entities in Gunnison County say they are in no current danger currently of leaving passengers behind but that is a concern as winter visitors and (hopefully) powder days begin to arrive.

Mountain Express, which runs between Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, and Gunnison Valley RTA, which runs up and down valley from Gunnison to Mt. Crested Butte, both got hit with a curveball this month when Colorado’s state health regulations overruled a recently secured capacity increase for them and limited passengers to 50 percent of bus capacity.


Mountain Express: okay for early season

Jeremy Herzog, managing director for Mountain Express, said for now operating at 50 percent is not a problem. Most buses running between Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte will allow 19 passengers on each bus in addition to the driver.

“We went to 25 percent capacity in June, then 50 percent. That’s what we’ve been doing all summer. Ridership was down 60 percent in July, then 40 percent in September. So we haven’t had much trouble with a smaller capacity,” Herzog said.

The only reason Mountain Express had put in an application for a capacity increase was to prepare for the upcoming winter.

“We crunched the numbers and realized if Crested Butte Mountain Resort is fully operational and we are at reduced capacity, this is going to be hard. So we spent September and October working to get a fully seated bus starting for the ski season,” said Herzog.

That application was approved early this month, in large part because the commute between Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte is usually only about eight minutes. So passengers would not be in contact with one another for the extended period of time associated with spreading the virus. Required facemasks, regular sanitization, newly upgraded air filters and some open windows would remain.

A few days later, the state issued a new ordinance restricting all transportation services to 50 percent capacity as the coronavirus numbers surge statewide.

“So that changes what we would have hoped to do,” said Herzog. Mountain Express had expected to be able to carry up to 38 passengers prior to the state-wide order.

“We are going to do the best we can. We’re putting more buses on the routes, and we’re spending about 25 percent more than we did last year in order to help move as many people as we can,” said Herzog.

He said those extra buses will generally be added for the busiest hours, which tend to be from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., and again from 3 to 7 p.m. “We have added buses during the week and weekend, from the times of 7 to 10 a.m. and again from 2 to 12 p.m. to try to get more coverage during what we think will be the busiest times,” Herzog said.

“We are assuming that will help make a difference, but I have a feeling we are going to be leaving a lot of people behind if that doesn’t change,” said Herzog. “We are in constant talks with [Gunnison County Public Health director Joni Reynolds]. At this point I think the plan we have for the winter is about as aggressive as it can be as far as moving people safely.

“Being sales tax based, there’s only so much we can do. I think we have a good plan for the beginning of the season. And we hope maybe things can change for the better as the season goes on.”

Herzog stressed that no drivers have become ill since the shutdown in March. “In addition to following ridership data and state numbers, we are trying to be very conscientious. To date, everyone has stayed safe and no contact tracing has led back to any bus rides,” he said.


RTA: “We don’t know what to expect”

The RTA is also operating at 50 percent of its seated capacity, which allows 28 passengers in addition to the driver, per the new state public health order, despite having received a nod on its previous application to increase to 75 percent capacity.

RTA executive director Scott Truex doesn’t expect that to change any time soon.

“The state order supersedes local orders at this time since it is more restrictive, and my understanding is that we will be at this level for the foreseeable future,” he said.

RTA has already seen a slight increase in ridership throughout the summer and fall, though ridership still falls short of previous years. Truex said the most passengers on board a single bus since November 1 has been 20 passengers.

“So we haven’t generally had to leave anyone behind. In October, there were two times when we left a couple of folks behind,” he said.

RTA will be moving from its fall schedule to the full winter schedule starting on November 25, increasing the number of round trips per day to 28.

“We anticipate that most of the time, the capacity limit will not affect our passengers, but during peak times, we may have to leave people behind once we get to the limit. We don’t really know what the demand will be once the ski resort opens,” said Truex. For example, the peak times north-bound tend to be 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. from Gunnison, and south-bound from 3:15 to 5:15 p.m. from Mt. Crested Butte.

“Our ridership has been down substantially as compared to last year since the pandemic began, and that trend may continue this winter. If it does, the capacity limits might not cause any problems—except on powder days. However, if the demand is similar to last year, we will be leaving people behind. We will monitor the situation carefully and may try to add another bus to the route if it becomes a problem,” said Truex.

If coronavirus numbers do get contained and stay that way in the coming months, Truex will keep an eye on the opportunity to carry more people at a time.

“We will be monitoring the situation and will adjust based upon future orders. If the statewide COVID-19 numbers get better in the future, we may be able to ask for a variance at that time,” said Truex.

In the meantime, even with fewer people the new bus etiquette remains. As Truex noted, “We are also asking that passengers social distance from other households as best as they can. We are requiring face-coverings for all drivers and passengers and we do not allow food or beverages to be consumed on the bus, so that the face-coverings stay on.”

So keep those breakfast burritos tucked away.

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