Mountain Express to introduce on-demand pilot program

Northern Mt. CB routes shifting to personalized minivan service

By Mark Reaman

Mountain Express will be expanding its transit service starting next winter to residents and guests staying in north Mt. Crested Butte, generally considered to be the area north of the ski area parking lot by Treasury Road up to the northern boundary by the Snodgrass trailhead.

The transit agency is moving from a fixed route system that serves places like the Columbine condos, Paradise Road homes and the Snodgrass trailhead stop close to the Homestead affordable homes near the north boundary of town, to a so-called “on-demand” service for that area. Under the new plan, interested riders from that area will be able to use an Uber-like smartphone app to hail a minivan for transport to the main transit center in Mountaineer Square; the ride may be shared or individual. For those without a smartphone or uncomfortable using the app, Mountain Express will provide a phone number as an alternative way to book a ride. The board of directors approved the move at its last board meeting.

According to Mountain Express managing director Jeremy Herzog, the pilot program will be in place for a year and run in the winter and summer seasons. Mountain Express has contracted with a company called Downtowner to provide this service. Downtowner also operates in Aspen, Steamboat, Jackson Hole and other resort communities across the mountain west. 

“Downtowner will be using AWD (all-wheel drive) minivans to operate the service. They will have three vans out in the winter, and two in the summer. Down the road, we may adjust that choice based on what we learn in the initial phases of this deployment. We expect most people to take it from their home/STR to the base area near Mountaineer Square to enjoy those amenities, or to transfer to the Town Shuttle/RTA routes,” said Herzog.

With on-demand service, the Town Shuttle route will be the only fixed Mt. Crested Butte route in the summer. There will no longer be regular fixed routes on the Summer Condo, Columbine and Snodgrass bus routes. 

Due to the high volume of passengers that use the Three-Seasons condo loop bus (about 400-700 people per day), Mountain Express will keep it as a stop on the town shuttle in the summer. In the winter, Mountain Express will retain the Town Shuttle, Three Seasons and Crystal/Castle loops. 

 “Once we get into implementation, we’ll work with the provider on how on-demand and fixed route might overlap in this one area,” explained Herzog. “Today our routes only cover roughly 70% of the homes in north Mt. Crested Butte. But this will increase service to 100% of homes. It will also increase frequency from 60/30 minutes, depending on where you live, to 15 minutes.” 

When asked how the on-demand service would do at 8:15 a.m. on a powder morning, Herzog said the group “worked through a planning project with Via Mobility this past winter and were advised the three minivans could handle even peak times in this zone, including a pow morning.”

As for the cost, it will add an additional $300,000 to the $400,000 budget currently in place to service those routes. But the hope is to entice more homeowners and visitors to use the new service and triple annual ridership in the zone from just more than 24,000 passengers a year to closer to 75,000. “Based on $320,000 of excess sales and admissions tax revenue year to date, Mountain Express will be able to fund that additional cost without requesting any further funding from the towns,” said Herzog. “We think this is a great investment into a pilot project that could lead to many other great innovations down the road as well.”

The expectation is that there are enough primary residents, part-time residents and visitors who are in the zone on a regular basis that the buses will be busy if people know about the service. “We carried roughly 25,000 passengers on these three routes in 2022,” Herzog said. “Our hope is to triple that ridership, which is a result that has been seen in Steamboat and Jackson Hole, with introduction of similar services. To meet our goal, we are going to need to lean heavily on our partners to help publicize this service, especially around the visitor population. I think this is a great amenity we are offering, and the outreach is going to be critical to our success. We hope to work with both towns, the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP), the Chamber and CBMR on that. We also asked our board members to make asks of other organizations with whom they play a governance role, such as TAPP and STOR. We think with the right outreach to create awareness, this service can hit our success metric.”

Although this service won’t be operated by Mountain Express employees, Herzog said it will still have an impact on the organization in the form of some adjusted driving shifts. “We all know change is tough, especially for an organization that has been so stable for so long. I think this will be a good opportunity for Mountain Express to begin the process of adopting change, of which, there is hopefully a lot more to come,” he said. “I think we are going to surprise ourselves with how successful we are going to be.”

Herzog is obviously excited about the pilot program and sees it as a next step to better service and a way to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the long run. The new service will adopt existing policies and will allow dogs, bikes and skis. “I think this is a service improvement everyone will benefit from and will be a service used by our year-round residents, part-time residents and visitors as well,” he said. “And just like our fixed route bus, it will be compliant with FTA guidelines and the service will be equipped to carry ADA passengers as well. I have had some initial conversations with Lian Canty, and with her artistry, I hope we will be able to wrap these vehicles in an appropriately CB funky fashion.”

Herzog said the hope is to get under contract with the operator, Downtowner, by the end of the month. Once under contract, Mountain Express will work through a detailed plan between now and the start of ski season.

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