Public transit and ski season: Dealing with a pandemic

Powder day issues already a major worry

by Mark Reaman

Efforts have begun to figure out what public transportation in the valley will look like in the coming winter, considering the reality of the coronavirus and the unknowns of an upcoming ski season. 

At a joint meeting of the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority and the Mountain Express on August 7, passenger restrictions on buses along with limited parking availability in the upper valley were major topics of discussion.

Gunnison County Public Health director Joni Reynolds took part in the meeting and indicated she wanted to figure out how best to keep public transportation viable this winter. “The revisions we have allowed are different from the state,” she said. “It is hard to know where we are headed but we are hopeful we can get back to where we were before July. The state is requiring six feet of distancing on public transportation, which allows for about 20 percent of capacity. Gunnison County has more strict mask requirements so we allow for more occupancy on public transportation.”

RTA executive director Scott Truex said the RTA plans to run the same 28-trip schedule that was in place last winter. “We expect ridership will be down this winter just because of people’s comfort level,” he said. “We’ll be monitoring things closely in November and early December to see if we need to adjust the schedule. It will be an interesting winter.”

Under the Coronameter’s Blue risk assessment level, the RTA can carry a maximum of 24 passengers per bus. The Mountain Express is limited to 19.

“In any normal winter we would exceed that regularly,” said Truex, “especially on a powder day. My biggest concern is going from the Blue level to the Yellow status, which reduces our rider capacity even though the ski area could be open.”

“That is our concern as well,” said incoming Mountain Express transit manager Jeremy Herzog. “In the Yellow status we can carry only nine people per bus. Looking at the history, we average 23 people per bus per trip. During a powder day we can have more than 60 people on a bus. So this could be a strain on our town shuttle this winter.”

“So the realistic scenario is that we will not be able to handle ridership capacity on busy mornings,” said Mountain Express board chair Roman Kolodziej.

“The concern in Mt. Crested Butte is the limited amount of parking available in town,” said RTA chair and Mt. Crested Butte mayor Janet Farmer.

Alpine Express director of business development Sutton Schuler said the company, which operates the RTA buses, has a goal “to operate safely while providing the service the community relies on. We will adjust and adapt to the situation.”

Alpine Express owner Landon Ogilvie said the company would be open to putting extra buses on routes if needed during specific situations. 

Truex noted he had read several articles pointing out that the coronavirus does not appear to be transmitted much on public transportation. He said he would share that information with Reynolds.

“I just see the huge possibility of more people driving with the limitations to bus capacity,” said Gunnison county commissioner and RTA board member Roland Mason. “Where can more parking be found in Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte?”

“The other issue with more people driving is that there will be more weather-related road issues during things like powder days,” added Truex. “That will impact the buses.”

Kolodziej said parking is not permitted in Mt. Crested Butte rights-of-ways.

Town manager Joe Fitzpatrick said the town has allowed some parking in the right-of-way under certain circumstances. “We have allowed some overflow parking on Emmons Road,” he said, “but it is very challenging, especially in a snow storm, which is when it is needed, given the powder day. We can look at options like perhaps allowing parking on one side of the street.”

“What about Gothic Road north of the town hall?” asked Mason. “People could park there and be shuttled to the Base Area.”

Fitzpatrick said with the new recreation path in the area there is less space “but still some potential for it. It is a very interesting challenge.”

Mountain Express board member Laura Mitchell brought up the free parking lot located on Snowmass Road south of the Base Area. “Better management might help get more vehicles in there,” she said.

Fitzpatrick said that could help and that many ski resort employees use the lot.

Crested Butte Mountain Resort director of skier services Christian Robertson said the main employee parking lot was part of the primary paid lot north of the Grand Lodge. That lot is also used for some town snow storage. 

“We could perhaps redirect our employees from using the Snowmass Road lot to the main employee parking lot if that helps,” he suggested. “That main paid parking lot reaches capacity very rarely every ski season. It gets full during things like Presidents’ Weekend, when there are a lot of drive market customers. We are open to considering other possibilities as well.”

Kolodziej said he was in favor of having CBMR employees use the main lot to free up spaces at the Snowmass lot. “That could take some heat off of what could be an overstressed public transportation system this winter,” he said. 

Departing Mountain Express transit manager Chris Larsen said the bus system could perhaps begin running buses a bit earlier than the normal 7:15 a.m. start time to assist employees working on the mountain. Robertson said most CBMR employees punch in between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m., so that could help a bit.

Crested Butte town planner Mel Yemma said the town could help where it can. She suggested forming a subgroup committee “to tackle the parking issue collaboratively. I think it will be a big issue this winter.”

The transit organization staffs will gather to figure out the best way for such a group to delve into details of the upcoming winter conundrum.

On a practical level, the boards discussed the problem of what happens when Gothic Road gets a sheen of ice in the late afternoons and the RTA buses can’t make it up to Mt. Crested Butte. In the past, the passengers would get off at the Four-way Stop in Crested Butte and take a Mountain Express bus to the Base Area. Mountain Express buses are better able to navigate a steep, slippery road. Again, passenger restrictions might make that impossible in the upcoming winter with a pandemic situation.

“It happened just three times last winter,’ said Herzog. “But if the RTA can’t make it up, it would be an issue with limited capacity restrictions. The best mitigation strategy might be better maintenance of Gothic Road.”

“Our buses can’t make it up when the road gets a layer of ice, especially if someone stops in front of us,” explained Truex. “The buses can’t get going again. So this is an ‘ask’ to see if the county can spend a few more resources to take care of that portion of Gothic Road between 4 and 5 p.m. This isn’t a complaint—everyone is doing the best they can—but in the past we could move passengers to the Mountain Express and that is not likely this winter.”

Mason said he would talk to county Public Works director Marlene Crosby to see if something could be figured out.

County commissioner Liz Smith said one element to keep in mind is that the transit agencies need “to manage people’s expectations, given the circumstances that will arise this winter. Riders need to understand how it will work on busy days with the limitations.”

Kolodziej agreed and said the issue wasn’t just with locals on a powder day but tourists coming from Mt. Crested Butte to Crested Butte for dinner on busy weekends. “That 5 o’clock rush could be an issue,” he said. “We need to find ways to get the word out.”

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