Mountain Express begins thinking about how to improve its mission

Changing in a changing world

[ by Mark Reaman ]

As the changes continue to come fast and furious in the valley, the Mountain Express transit system is looking to see how it fits into the new world and determine what it could do to help keep the character of the place intact. The board has started considering a new five-year outlook under the direction of Mountain Express managing director Jeremy Herzog.

“The world has changed and while the original purpose of Mountain Express was to get visitors from the resort to catch a free bus downtown to eat dinner, things are different now,” he said. “More tourists stay in Crested Butte with short-term rentals and with almost 600 STRs in Mt. CB, we are seeing a demographic shift there too. And of course, more locals are living in places like CB South and Buckhorn. We are looking at adjusting our services to reflect these situations. We want to be the convenient transit option for the increasing number of local residents and visitors.”

Herzog said this new outlook is just taking shape, but it is good for the board to look at its future while seeing the financial realities of the visions. He mentioned the costs that come with constructing a new transit facility on the land owned by the agency at Whetstone Vista, increasing the wages and benefits of employees to make the job more enticing in the local market to attract new employees to the Mountain Express, and looking at things like electric buses and the costs that come with such vehicles, as examples of new financial outlays that would ultimately determine the future vision.

”We are keeping an eye on EV (electric vehicles) technology for buses but the current technology is expensive to both buy and maintain,” Herzog explained. “Places like Jackson Hole and Park City are ahead of us in that regard, but they have a lot more money. And none of the places with EV buses have it completely figured out.

“We are also looking at expanding services to help deal with the increase in traffic we are seeing,” Herzog continued. “How do we introduce new services to get people out of their cars and onto a bus? Do we support an intercept parking lot south of town? Do we run trips to popular trailheads? What about a town circulator bus or trolley? The idea is to move beyond the town shuttle element of our mission.”

Start with Gothic
Herzog said there is a budding plan to next summer restart service up the Gothic corridor. The idea is to make it easy for people to get to Gothic and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), the Judd Falls hiking trail and a starting point for mountain bikers to hit 401.

“We have been working with the Forest Service and RMBL to figure this out,” he said. “Regional collaboration is important given the growth we are seeing.”

The initial Gothic service pilot program for the summer of 2022 will likely mean contracting out the service with the idea that a carrier like Alpine Express could supply regular van service with a bike trailer. “The previous issue was that our normal buses can’t carry enough bikes so we’ll see if using smaller vehicles that can carry bikes will be better and more appealing. If it works, we would then invest in purchasing our own equipment and running it,” Herzog explained.

Overall, Herzog said it is important to rethink where people are coming from and going to. Continuing the collaboration with the RTA that gets people up and down valley is important, he said. Both transit agencies are planning a new promotional campaign this fall to get more people to be comfortable and hop back on the buses. He emphasized that increasing ridership helps everyone, so it is important to make bus service convenient and easy. He said as potential large workforce housing projects get built outside of the towns, transit service should be ingrained as part of any initial plan.

Herzog said getting workers and visitors on the bus could also help preserve community. “If you are in a car, you are in your own little world. But when you get on the bus you are with other people sharing an experience. The buses are cool and funky and the music might reflect a driver’s taste that is not found in your car. Riding a Mountain Express bus can really help to introduce and reflect the character of this place in some ways,” he said. “It’s a piece of the puzzle in preserving this place.”

As for the immediate future, Mountain Express hopes to return to a winter schedule like the one from 2019. There will be the inclusion of ambassadors during the busy weekend periods and the intent is to make people feel comfortable riding the bus even if COVID continues to linger. Ridership this past summer was still down about 20 percent from the summer of 2019. Getting new drivers is important as well since Herzog noted that 30 to 40 percent of the staff is nearing retirement.

“The world is changing and we want to be part of the solution. We are trying to think regionally and embrace strong partnerships,” concluded Herzog. “We will move to more action after the towns complete their master plans this fall but we will also carefully align our ambitions with the reality of finances. We need to look at our priorities and evaluate our options. This is a start.”

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