RTA service hampered by staffing and COVID issues

Help on the way for the rest of the winter, major grant could result in expanded service

[ by Mark Reaman ]

Even with RTA bus ridership off by about 40-percent so far this ski season, COVID-19 restrictions and a lack of drivers has put a few stones in the smooth path of people riding the buses up and down the valley. Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority executive director Scott Truex told his board during the January 8 meeting that December ridership was tracking at about 60 percent of 2019 but close to 200 people had been left behind on trips.

“Because of capacity restrictions we did leave 198 people in December. They had to wait until the next bus,” Truex explained. “Those instances occurred typically on weekends and during the normally busy periods.”

Truex said staffing issues prohibited some buses scheduled for before 7 a.m. and at 5:30 p.m. from running but that is when the schedule calls for a bus every 15 minutes. Given that, it was not long before another bus came along for riders.

The primary factor contributing to the situation is that staffing of bus drivers for the large coaches is not currently at 100 percent but that could change later in January. Pam Cook of Alpine Express, which runs the RTA bus system, said that several drivers were in the process of training for the CDLs (Commercial Driver’s License) and were expected to obtain them in mid-January. She indicated that could help alleviate the problem of leaving some people behind.

In the meantime, Truex told the board that the RTA had been informed by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) that it was eligible for another $100,000 in CARES Act funding for additional service. “Unfortunately we don’t have the drivers to take full advantage of the opportunity right now but I’ve talked to Alpine Express and we are planning to use some of their airport shuttle vans to back up the current buses. Drivers for those vans don’t need a CDL so there are more drivers available. Those vans can be standing by on weekends. Each van can carry seven people under current restrictions. The thinking is they will be used on the weekends, during powder days and at times like Spring Break or long holiday weekends.”

Truex said that would cost the RTA about $290 per day and reimbursement would come through CDOT in the spring. “My guess is it will end up costing between $10,000 and $25,000 and not come close to the $100,000,” he said.

Truex also told the board that because transit drivers are in the so-called 1B phase of the state’s vaccination protocols, most of the drivers should be eligible to get a vaccine in the next few weeks. He said based on video analysis, it appears there is about a 97 percent compliancy rate with passengers wearing the required face masks while riding RTA buses.

Schedule expansion possible
Given recent increases in sales tax that helps fund the RTA and is up eight percent for the year, Truex said he would be bringing a proposal to the board next month to expand spring, summer and fall bus schedules. “The revenues have been solid and we have received grant funds so we have the opportunity to expand the schedule if you want,” he told the board. “I can bring you options to consider at the next meeting.”
The board was open to the idea and will look at the proposal at the February 12 meeting.

Major grant for bus facility could eventually help with intra-state bus service from CB
In the longer-term picture, a recent $1.7 million grant obtained by the RTA from CDOT could eventually help get regular bus service to both Denver and Montrose starting in Crested Butte. Currently there is an early morning bus that originates from Gunnison to Denver but no service that heads west.

The major CDOT grant will go toward construction of a bus storage facility at the Whetstone Industrial lot located just south of Crested Butte. Ideally, construction of the new facility would start in the spring of 2022 and be completed by the fall of 2022.

“CDOT has agreed that the cost of the land will count as our local match for the project so we won’t have to put in more money unless construction costs exceed the $1.7 million. That would then be our responsibility,” Truex explained. “The construction of the six-bay facility would be used both for our local buses and buses that travel to Denver and hopefully future buses for Montrose service.”

He said the grant money will be used for design, facility construction, paving, landscaping and a septic system that would be shared with Mountain Express which is a partner in the land and plans a future bus facility on the lots as well. Design costs will be approximately $200,000 and the RTA and Mountain Express are partnering with a required “equity analysis” of the proposal.

“I am excited to get the project done and it should be completed before the winter of 2022,” he said. “That timing lines up with the work taking place on the Little Blue Canyon project between Gunnison and Montrose that starts this spring. When that is done we can pursue bus service to Montrose.”

RTA board member and Gunnison County commissioner Roland Mason added that there is also a chance to expand the Denver bus to two trips per day. “That would really help with Western Colorado University,” he said.

Check Also

Town and county meeting Monday to discuss Whetstone

Rents aren’t looking cheap at the moment By Mark Reaman It appears agreement could be …