Mountain Express rolls out new FirstTracks service

Expects busiest days to be December 26 – January 1

By Kendra Walker

With the start of the winter ski season, the Mountain Express (MX) has begun operating its new pilot on-demand service, FirstTracks. The colorful vans can be spotted driving folks around north Mt. Crested Butte, and feedback so far has been positive with some residents still wondering how it will handle the busy holiday season and ridership demands beyond. 

FirstTracks has replaced the Snodgrass/Columbine routes in north Mt. Crested Butte and expands free transportation services to areas not covered by a bus route. Through the FirstTracks smartphone app, a van will pick you up and transport you anywhere in the designated service area daily from 7:15 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. 

The service area includes Mountaineer Square, the previous neighborhoods served by the Snodgrass/Columbine routes and all of north Mt. Crested Butte up through Prospect, excluding the Three Seasons bus route. Mountain Express executive director Jeremy Herzog said that while the previous route served 25% of homes in the area, FirstTracks serves 100% of homes in north Mt. Crested Butte including “a substantial number of homes that were a pretty far walk to those bus stops.”

Herzog says that the number of vans out at any given time fluctuate based on the time of day and day of the week. In most cases, he said there are three vans out at the same time for a combination of 26 available seats, which is the same number of seats as the previous bus. 

“Substantial work was done by (operator) Downtowner to right size the fleet, by using computer-based algorithms, ridership data from MX and residential population data from the Town of Mt. Crested Butte,” said Herzog. “That included data from our really big days like New Year’s Eve, President’s weekend, Spring Break, etc. It will be an interesting test during this pilot to see how accurate the simulations were, and we’ll monitor wait times to judge that.”

Currently, there are approximately 10 drivers and a full-time local operations manager. “They are fully staffed up and using all local W-2 employees, including a few MX drivers who wanted to expand their skill set as public transit operators,” said Herzog. “A regional manager has been here for the first month of the deployment to get everything up and running.”

Herzog said that the initial FirstTracks rollout has gone well, with a few minor kinks to work out. “Due to timing from vendors, a few things were delayed. The snowboard racks were not installed until early December, so boarders were bringing their boards inside the van for the first few weeks,” he said. “We also are sorting out a few of the fine-tuned logistics around the best overnight parking location and an ideal car washing spot. And finally with the overnight parking outside the service area, we did have to adjust shift changes to make sure we don’t have a coverage gap late afternoon, which is a period of expected high demand.”

He continued, “Like any new service, there are certainly some small kinks we are working out, but nothing that has significantly impacted the overall ridership experience so far. It’s way too early to call this a success or failure, as we know more challenges lie ahead, but the deployment went about as smoothly as we could have hoped for.”

Looking ahead to the busy holiday season, the Mountain Express will have an extra van available to accommodate more riders. “We will be placing a fourth van out during the critical times to provide added capacity. We have looked at previous ridership trends and the TAPP (Tourism and Prosperity Partnership) visitor forecast and expect the busiest days to be December 26 – January 1,” Herzog said. “MX and Downtowner staff presented a very thorough analysis around this challenge in the October MX board meeting and think we have a solid plan for our first period of super high demand. Once we can get more data from the first six weeks of service and can more accurately assess trends, we’ll come up with a plan for President’s weekend, Spring Break and those ‘random’ big weekends when we see strong visitation trends from Epic Pass holders.”

Herzog noted that they expect things to take a little longer during the busiest days of the year. “We’ll do our best to provide the user experience we strive for, but we recommend people always plan for longer ride times during those busy times, not just on FirstTracks, but across the entire MX system. Just like we saw a line for the Town Shuttle all the way back to the old Avalanche Bar and Grill during the height of Spring Break last year, we expect things to take a little longer during the busiest days of the year.”

Initial feedback

Overall, Herzog is pleased with the rollout so far. “Ridership has been really strong, especially considering the overall slow start to the ski season. We’ve gotten great feedback from people who couldn’t access the old bus stops, but now have better access to fare-free public transportation,” he said. “In the first two weeks of service, we’ve carried 37% more riders than we did last year, with an average wait time of just three and a half minutes. People who have ridden the service have given an average rating of 4.9 out of 5.”

“We’ve had a ton of positive feedback from riders, both locals and visitors, and have seen ridership on nearly every street within the service area in just the first two weeks of service,” said Travis Gleason, CEO of Downtowner.

Resident Bill Mooz recently shared feedback with the Town of Mt. Crested Butte. “In short, I have nothing but positive things to say. We live on Anthracite and did not have any viable bus service previously. We now ride FirstTracks regularly and are driving way less than we did before. The service is excellent… I’m cautiously optimistic that FirstTracks could help revitalize the base area of the mountain,” he wrote in a letter to the town.

Since the new on-demand service was announced in July, residents of Paradise Road and the surrounding neighborhoods served by the Columbine/Snodgrass fixed bus route have reiterated their concerns that the community was not engaged in the process. As previously reported in the Crested Butte News, some folks felt blindsided that their bus routes were cancelled without any public outreach and disappointed that the Mountain Express was not willing to compromise with a solution to continue existing bus lines while simultaneously testing the on-demand service to areas that do not currently have access to transit.

Paradise resident Carl Tucker said his family and neighbors have been using the service. “When the mountain is not busy it is usually convenient. The drivers are kind and courteous,” he said. 

Tucker said the feedback he has heard is consistent with many of the concerns residents originally expressed to the Mountain Express, including long waits at peak periods, idling vans in parking lots waiting for calls, the minivans not handling well in the snow, and the use for minors. “Personally, I don’t love the idea of my 8-year-old daughter riding in a van by herself that is going to randomly stop at several houses around town depending on who else is riding,” said Tucker. 

Tucker said he and his neighbors are grateful to have the service but are concerned with Mountain Express’s ability to afford the service long-term. “They are paying quite a premium to Downtowner at $700k for the year. That $700k is variable, and we fully expect it to exceed that amount. The result of this expense is Mountain Express is running a deficit for their FY24 budget and putting into place cost cutting measures like reducing staff pay increases. As grateful as we are to have a service, we do not want to see Mountain Express go back to both towns asking to increase funding to cover this expense.” 

He continued, “Many members of the community suggested to Mountain Express that the on-demand pilot have success metrics. MX did not create those. We provided suggestions, they did not follow up and have still not published success metrics. This is just another example of the continued lack of communication and engagement with the public.”

Herzog told the Crested Butte News that he will present a more robust set of metrics from Downtowner’s monthly data reporting package at the next Mountain Express board meeting. 

“With the new technology used by this service, we will have far better metrics than we do for our fixed route bus, late night taxi and senior van services,” said Herzog. “After two years of making organizational adjustments to become change enablers, this is a big moment for us. Facilitating positive change is never easy, but I think it’s an important focus for us right now. With all the changes happening in the Gunnison Valley, we look forward to being part of the solution, and being the best provider of public transportation services we can be, for both our residents and visitors alike.”

The easiest way to know if your desired pick-up/drop-off location is within the FirstTracks service area is to download the app. Email FirstTracks at or call (970) 713-4070 with any questions about the service.

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