Since regional bus service came to the Eagle Valley in 1980, the importance of public transportation and connectivity has only grown.
Voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 1995 that created the Eagle County Regional Transportation Authority (ECO Transit). A tenth of that tax goes toward the ECO Trails system.
The ECO Trails system includes the bike path that will eventually connect Summit and Garfield counties through Eagle County. About 15 years into the project, about half of it is completed. Thirty-three miles are finished and about 30 miles remain, not counting the bike path systems already built over Vail Pass and through Glenwood Canyon.
"The bike path goes hand in hand with the bus system," said ECO Transit Director Kelley Collier. "We've found that most people who use bus stops on U.S. Highway 6 and Cooley Mesa Road in Gypsum access those stops by the bike path. Without the trail, ECO Transit would not be what it is."
ECO Transit had fewer than 20 buses when it began in 1996. That number climbed to 34 in 2008, when the economy and the valley were still growing rapidly. Now there are 31 buses in the fold.
In terms of ridership, there were 743,000 trips in 2005 (each time someone boards a bus it is considered a "trip"). There were 946,000 trips in 2006 - a 27 percent increase. That number remained relatively flat through 2007, at 956,000 trips. The following year saw record numbers with 1.2 million trips - a 26 percent increase from 2007. That year also saw ECO's highest number of service hours and revenue in spite of increased fuel prices.
Then the bubble burst.
"The start of the nose dive was in 2009," Collier said.
That year saw a 22 percent decrease in trips, down to about 945,000.
"We had to cut service and increase fares. It was awful," Collier said. "We felt the full effect in 2010, when we reached our lowest ridership - 632,000 - and lowest number of service hours in a long time."
There were 726,000 trips in 2011 and this year is on pace to reach 750,000. Year to date, 2012 is up 3 percent over 2011, with 561,000 trips through September.
Collier said 2010's low numbers became the baseline for ECO Transit. Now it's all about doing more with less.
"When everyone was growing exponentially, we were just Band-Aiding service gaps," Collier said.
ECO Transit is currently examining solutions for providing a higher level of service for less cost.
"We're now looking at a service redesign," Collier said. "We hired a consultant with federal funding to do a study that was recently completed and I'll be going to Vail, Minturn, Avon, Eagle and Gypsum for feedback."
The conceptual plan calls for a "spine system" to be more efficient by consolidating stops into a major hub in each town.
"We currently have basic stops in Eagle and Gypsum, so I'll be asking them what the towns might be willing to contribute for additional stops," Collier said. "Minturn has a pretty good handle on it already."
Collier emphasized the importance of the bus service to and from Eagle County Regional Airport.
"When visitors to the airport leave and return by bus, that is their first and last impressions of their time here, so we want the bus system to be as seamless as possible," she said.
ECO Transit has also been identified by a consultant in the past as the "preferred provider" for service between Eagle County and Glenwood Springs, Collier said.
"That was before the economy tanked," she said. "Someday we will probably see (service) connectivity between Summit and Garfield counties. Sooner or later - I hope sooner."
Progress on the bike path system through the Eagle River valley is largely dependent on funding and partnerships with property owners and entities such as the Colorado Department of Transportation.
"It takes a lot of people to pull off each inch of progress," said ECO Trails Director Ellie Caryl.
As stated on the county website, "ECO Trails activities are overseen by the Eagle County Commissioners, Eagle County Regional Transportation Authority Board (also known as the ECO Board), and the ECO Eagle Valley Trails Committee. The ECO Board consists of elected officials or appointed representatives from each incorporated town in the county and from county government. In 1996, the ECO Board created the citizen trails committee to advise them on how the taxes collected for trails should be expended. Staff from each of the towns and the county also participate on the committee. A staff position (Caryl's) was created in 1998 to manage implementation of the program."
The year 2020 was the rough target for completing the trail system when the program started 15 years ago. It's hard to say if the project will take less time or more. The first key is funding.
"We pay as we go," Caryl said. "Right now, about $20 million is needed to finish the project but that includes some sections of the path that could be built by developers."
ECO Trails receives about $530,000 per year through its one-tenth portion of the dedicated half-cent sales tax. That money often has to be saved up for specific projects and supplemented with other sources.
The developments in question are the Battle Mountain plan, the Wolcott plan and Eagle River Station.
The Battle Mountain plan is being handled by the town of Minturn and would cover the section of path from Dowd Junction to Red Cliff. That would shave $8 million off the remaining cost of the trail project. It's hard to say which way it will go, though.
"It's been under consideration for about five years," Caryl said.
The Wolcott plan would build at least a mile to the nine-mile section between Wolcott and Eagle if approved. Trinity/RED Development, the developer of Eagle River Station in Eagle, would chip in a mile or more to the same section.
The full section between Wolcott and Eagle carries a $5.5 million price tag.
Estimates for the remaining trail segments to be funded: Gypsum to Dotsero, Phases IV and V, $950,000; Avon to Eagle-Vail, Phase IV, $2.5 million; Edwards to Wolcott, Phase I, II and III, $3.5 million (portion possibly to be built by developer).
Mountainous terrain in those areas make trail construction especially challenging and expensive. That's why Caryl is hoping to strike a deal with the Union Pacific Railroad.
"It may or may not help in terms of price if the railroad allows us to use its corridor," Caryl said.
With the narrow, rugged corridor of the valley, use of the railroad property for the path could help overcome some bottlenecks such as terrain and rights of way. More specifically, use of the rail corridor would help trail construction in the three segments mentioned above.
"Not a day goes by I don't wish I had that rail corridor," Caryl said.
Other hold-ups in bike path construction include the availability of county resources and natural disasters. For example, the Phase II section between Gypsum and Dotsero is about a month and a half behind schedule because the county road and bridge department has been cleaning up massive amounts of debris from the summer floods on Sweetwater Road. Caryl anticipates that section will be completed in 2013.
"People are using the section that leads west out of Gypsum all the time," Caryl said. "It's also one of my favorites. It's very scenic."
While there is still work left to complete the ECO Trail system, Caryl notes that it has come a long way and is already being well used.
"I think the best moments were connecting the communities - finishing the last piece of Gypsum to Eagle in 2009 along Cooley Mesa Road, so there was a 7-mile route in cooperation with the towns, and connecting Edwards and Avon similarly," she said. "Now we are working on connecting Eagle-Vail and Minturn, Gypsum to Dotsero and Edwards to Wolcott to Eagle - many balls in the air."
Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Shroll has enjoyed seeing the trail progress.
"It's awesome the way the core trail gets used," he said. "You can basically get from Gypsum to Eagle on it now, and only a small section remains to be finished (to Dotsero)."
Caryl said public demand for the trail has only grown.
"We do a survey each year and the trail system has gotten more support as it expands."
That survey also resulted in shoulder-widening projects on Highway 6 that were finished last summer. The county paid for the shoulder-widening and CDOT paid for the overlay.
CDOT also overlaid the bike path on Vail Pass and made drainage improvements this summer at a cost of $1 million.
"That project has been on our radar for about 12 years," said CDOT Engineer Martha Miller.
Caryl said she works closely with Miller and a few others and that CDOT is a key partner for making the ECO Trail a reality.
"CDOT has been a huge help with these projects, making the roads safer for everyone," Caryl said. "Part of CDOT's mission statement is 'multi-modal.'"
"We enjoy the partnership and look forward to doing more together," Miller said.