Expanding long-haul service to Front Range and eventually Montrose
by Mark Reaman
The Gunnison County Rural Transportation Authority (RTA), working with the Colorado Department of Transportation, has agreed to help fund a second daily bus to run between Gunnison and Denver. The expanded service will likely begin in January 2021. The goal is to eventually have the bus route start in Crested Butte.
Currently there is one trip that leaves Gunnison at 6:05 a.m. before returning to Gunnison at 6:50 p.m. The initial idea would have a second bus leave Gunnison at 2 p.m. Buses would leave Denver on a schedule so the drivers would meet in Fairplay and switch vehicles.
RTA executive director Scott Truex told the board at its February 28 meeting that CDOT officials, who are in charge of the long-haul route, have agreed to the concept, “if we can come up with the revenue to pay for the financial shortfall between cost of the bus and ticket revenue. It would sort of be like the Minimum Revenue Guarantees we use with the airlines. Based on current ridership numbers the analysis predicts the subsidy would cost between $200,000 and $250,000 annually to run the service at the beginning.”
The total cost of running the bus is about $400,000 but ticket revenues would help pay for the expense. One-way tickets right now go for $40. The 50-seat buses are busiest at the start and end of Western Colorado University scholastic breaks when students clamor to leave town. Truex said he met with the WCU student government and “received positive feedback on the idea of providing a second daily bus and would be willing to consider funding some of the subsidy but it is likely to be a small amount.”
Average ridership on the bus is about 25 people per day heading east from Gunnison and 20 people per day heading west from Denver. About 43 percent of the passengers are going to or from Gunnison, while about half are going to or from Chaffee County. Truex suggested that if Gunnison County entities could raise $150,000 per year and Chaffee County threw in $100,000 there would be enough money to begin the program. He has approached the Gunnison County commissioners about tapping into its LMD (Local Marketing District) money for $50,000. The RTA could afford $100,000 and Chaffee County would be asked for its portion.
“I think a second bus would improve the Gunnison-Crested Butte ridership,” Truex said. “I don’t know if the ridership would double but right now there is about a $12 subsidy per passenger.”
RTA board member and county commissioner Roland Mason said the RTA helped subsidize the first bus to Denver and it was a success. “CDOT likes to see the local communities get skin in the game,” he said. He wondered if it made sense to start the second bus on a reduced schedule of Thursdays through Sundays instead of seven days a week, to cut costs.
“We haven’t talked about that but for passengers it works so much better to run the service every day,” said Truex.
“The second bus really creates opportunity,” added county commissioner and RTA board member John Messner. “There is some risk the first couple of years but like with the airlines, expanding service, in this case to two buses per day with a consistent schedule, shows trust and connectivity. I think this really could be a big deal.”
“I agree with John on the vision,” added board member Boe Freeburn. ”It adds to the options and the convenience.”
Messner pointed out that CDOT was expected to be a major contributor to a future $1.5 million bus storage facility at the Whetstone Industrial Park near Crested Butte, where the long-haul buses along with RTA buses could be kept overnight. Truex said it was his understanding that CDOT was very committed to help fund the facility. The future vision of expanded bus service eventually includes regular bus service from the valley not only to Denver, but west to Montrose so several buses will be in play and would need a place to be stored.
Messner said he has had preliminary conversations with county commissioners in Chaffee County, who expressed interest in the expanded service and were open to contributing financially.
RTA board chair Janet Farmer said it appeared the board generally supported the idea of funding the expanded service and starting the service next January.
Truex said he would pursue the expansion by following up with CDOT and trying to firm up funding potential from the LMD and Chaffee County.