Bustang bus service picking up ridership in Colorado

A Bustang heading toward Vail launches from the Denver Bus Station at mid-afternoon.

Third daily Bustang added as demand from I-70 mountain towns stays strong

by Allen Best

FRISCO, Colo. – In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that city buses were “in a state of steady decline.” That may be true in most cities, but a bus service in Colorado called Bustang, which was launched in 2015 along urbanized interstate corridors, has been steadily adding new riders.

Just yesterday, a daily bus was added between Glenwood Springs and Denver for the duration of winter. Geared for need of mountain town residents, Bustang sends two buses each morning, now two from Glenwood and one  from Vail, stopping in towns along the way, reaching  Denver’s Union Station, the nerve center for mass transit in metropolitan Denver and along the Front Range.

In the afternoon and evening, the two buses reverse course.

The success of the bus routes are part of an evolving approach to transportation in Colorado, one that recognizes limits to the building of transportation infrastructure for individual cars.

“It’s becoming clear to everyone that just building ourselves out of congestion is not an option,” says Andy Karsian, legislative liaison for the Colroado Department of Transportation. Bustang bus routes represent a “multi-faceted approach” that seeks to provide state-wide connectivity, he says.

Feeder routes into the bus service along the interstates are being planned.

Bustangs along I-70 consistently have around 90 riders a day, seven days a week, although it can surge to 150 riders daily during winter. This compares against a maximum 204 seats daily.

Other Bustangs operate between Denver and Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. Unlike those from the mountains, which are geared to the needs of mountain residents, the Front Range buses operate greater bidirectional schedules. There are buses that depart each morning from Denver, but also buses that depart from Fort Collins and Colorado Springs to Denver.

Buses along the I-25 corridor are more frequent than those on the I-70 corridor. Riders have 14 one-way trips available between Fort Collins and Denver, compared to the four between Denver and mountain communities.

Michael E. Timlin, the bus operations manager for C-DOT, reports that all routes have enjoyed ridership increases. Total bus ridership between Denver and Fort Collins, for example, has quadrupled in two years. But the I-70 Bustangs boast higher ridership per bus, about 36 riders per bus, compared to 8 riders for the buses along I-25.

In March 2017, with heavy traffic on I-70, the buses handled 4,018 passengers, compared to 5,656 for those north from Denver and 5,336 for those south from Denver.

If skiing explains the surge in winter transit, Timlin also credits a high-level of bus ridership that already exists in mountain valleys along I-70. “They’re very transit savvy up there,” he says while pointing out that RFTA, the Aspen-Glenwood bus agency, is the second largest non-urban bus system in the country.

Bus service almost universally requires subsidies, and these are no exception. At the front end was $10.9 million in state funds that came out of 2009 legislation that created a surcharge on auto registrations. The buses along I-70 and I-25 require an annual $3 million subsidy. The added taxes came in the wake of a bridge collapse in Minneapolis and a realization that Colorado’s highway infrastructure had its own safety risks. A small portion of the $200 million in annual revenues was carved out for bus transportation.

If $3 million is guaranteed for operations, expansion of service can be justified only through fare-box recovery. Last year, Bustang took in $1.6 million in revenue, a 53 percent increase over its inaugural year.

Higher levels of comfort and convenience may well explain the success of the buses. These are not your old yellow school buses, nor even a long-haul Greyhound. All of the 51-passenger buses have restrooms, bike racks, and then connections for the digital age: WiFi, 110v outlets, and USB ports.

Who is riding the buses? Timlin points to familiar suspects: baby boomers, now diminishing in their bulk, yet still carrying demographic clout, but also millennials, less inclined than their elders to own cars. That trend, noted some years ago, seems to be carrying forward even as they get older.

“They’re trying to find different avenues than sitting in cars (in congestion), getting frustrated. On the bus, they can take a nap, they can play on a computer, they can watch a movie, they can take back their lives.”

Ken Neubecker occasionally boards the Bustang in Glenwood Springs for trips to Denver. He’s Colorado operations manager for American Rivers, a water advocacy group. The group’s Colorado headquarters is two blocks from Union Station, the Denver terminus for the buses. Other trips require him taking the 16th Street shuttle to state and other offices in the area of the Colorado capital.

Still other times, he has taken the Bustang to Denver and then taken the A-Line train to Denver International Airport.

“I think it’s great,” he says. “It does take longer than driving, but as long as I’m not driving I can make phone calls, I can use the WiFi and my computer, and there’s plenty of leg room,” he says. Too, Bustangs have restrooms—handy, if traffic bogs down in a storm.

Buoyed by the success of Bustang, the Colorado Department of Transportation is now considering expansion from its trunk lines into rural areas. These will be working with local transportation providers and using federal funds. Timlin calls this the “son of Bustang” or, more cumbersomely, rural regional Bustang outrider service.

One new service in the Arkansas Valley will begin daily service in January between Lamar and Pueblo, while another Alamosa-Salida-Pueblo route is scheduled to begin May 1, while a Gunnison-Denver shuttle is to begin in July.

Bustang service replacing the Greyhound service between Grand Junction and Denver is to begin in July along with a bus between Durango and Grand Junction.

If money remains available after that, another option is to extend a line from Frisco to Kremmling and north to Steamboat Springs.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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