How do you turn one bird into two?
"You change the way you do business," said ECO Transit Director Kelley Collier.
ECO Transit is getting very serious about business-changing action lately. Quite a few changes - some large, some small - will be launched by Eagle County's bus system this year. The biggest change coming down the road is a new "spine service" along the Interstate 70 corridor, which will allow people to get up and downvalley at a rate that competes with personal vehicles.
The extra challenge facing the ECO Transit team is to implement the changes - essentially better service - with the same operating budget and resources. Put another way, Collier is heading an effort to turn one bus into two.
"Having a successful mass transit system is critical to economic development," Collier said.
ECO Transit is already successful in terms of ridership, but Collier wants the system to improve how it promotes and supports the county's growth.
She noted a successful local transit system should promote tourism, help employees get to work, transport kids without taking their parents away from their jobs, and take the strain off limited upvalley parking.
Collier said Colorado is No. 1 in rural transit trips in the entire country. A transit trip is anytime a person gets on a bus to go somewhere.
"The annual average trips per capita for the country is 1.9 percent," she said. "Eagle County averages 16 percent."
ECO's success can be tied to several factors including the limited parking in Vail and Avon - the most common destinations of all ECO Transit passengers - along with the high number of seasonal employees and people without cars. The linear geography of the Eagle River Valley also boosts ridership.
That geography, which includes I-70, is another reason why Eagle County is conducive to rapid-transit spine service.
"Sometimes a route is too successful," Collier said. "Sometimes so many people are on a route we have to bring in extra service and that's not efficient."
The spine service might fix that.
A feasibility study to implement spine service between Vail and Gypsum was recently completed with the help of a consultant, Transit Plus, and a working group that included town representatives.
"This week, we're going to have a three-day session to nail down an operational plan that we can present to the community for feedback this summer," Collier said on Monday.
The plan is to implement the spine service in phases, starting with the Eagle-Gypsum route next winter.
On the I-70 spine, buses will run from Vail to Eagle, stopping at Lionshead, Minturn, Avon and Edwards in between. Other buses will serve routes within those "hub" communities and along U.S. Highway 6. The idea is to provide fast transportation up and down the valley with hub service that takes people to their final destinations from the six stops along the spine.
From Eagle, buses will serve stops along Highway 6 and loop through Gypsum, much like they do now. Collier doesn't plan to change those stops much, if at all.
"The Eagle-Gypsum route had a 37 percent increase in passengers in 2012 over 2011," she said. "Our aim is to fit the needs of the community and we're just trying to be more efficient."
The Vail-Beaver Creek Express route will also be reintroduced in phase one next winter.
"That was one of our most successful routes that was cut in 2009," Collier said.
The changes won't happen overnight, partly to give passengers time to adjust.
Before the spine service gets going, a second study needs to be done and starts mid-March.
"We had to identify our goals first so that we can now identify what facilities we need for those goals," Collier said.
In other words, the spine service study only looked at service, and the "hub and park and ride study" will analyze facilities.
Collier already knows that ECO Transit needs a transfer hub at Edwards to implement effective spine service. Edwards is the start of ECO's most traveled route - the Highway 6 Route, which serves many stops into Vail and accounts for 67 percent of the ridership.
Besides the facility, the bus service will have to be well-timed to make ECO an attractive option for commuters. If people are left waiting too long between transfers, they might decide to drive themselves instead.
That's a big reason why the express buses will turn around in Eagle instead of Gypsum.
"Going to Gypsum would take a bus an hour and 15 minutes instead of an hour," Collier told Eagle County Commissioners at a meeting last week.
That extra 15 minutes adds up to fewer trips overall in a day, so Eagle is a better terminal for the express route.
ECO Transit is funded by a dedicated half-cent sales tax, which it shares with ECO Trails. Ten percent of the tax goes to trails.
"ECO Trails is integral to transit because without trails, our passengers wouldn't be able to get to our stops," Collier said.
ECO Transit's portion of the sales tax is about 75 percent of its funding. The other 25 percent comes from farebox revenues and a little bit of federal funding, which amounts to 3 percent.
Last year, ECO started selling ad space on the outside of its buses, so that will help as well. The agency selling the ads is guaranteeing a minimum of $101,000 per year and there is potential to make $400,000 annually.
"We're going to be making some money pretty quickly," Collier said.
Meanwhile, revenues are just able to keep up with operation costs.
"We have seen a little increase in our revenues but our operating expense is also rising," Collier said.
Right now, ECO Transit's operating budget it $7.2 million and that is expected to stay the same with the new spine system.
"If we ever end up making a profit, we will put the extra money back on the road because we're in the business of serving the community," Collier said.
There are currently 18 buses operating at peak hours. With the spine service, Transit Plus projects only 15 will be needed.
During the boom years, before the economic downturn resulted in many service cuts in 2009, ECO Transit was not operating with efficiency.
"For years we were so reactionary to the needs of the county," Collier said. "We added lots of stops to serve the entire county but that made service slow. The downturn forced us to be more strategic."
The goal now is to tighten running time and still cover a wide area. To do that, some stops might be consolidated into other ones if they are within reasonable walking distance. That's something the hub study will examine.
Some of the less noticeable changes that have already begun include the bus-wrap advertising, surveillance cameras, Wi-Fi for passengers and various computer software to help with maintenance and tracking.
"We have a demo bus with passenger Wi-Fi right now to test it out," Collier said.
Other software passengers will be able to track the buses in real time.
"They'll be able to know exactly where the bus is," Collier said.
The rest of the software will only be noticed by operating staff. Called "automated vehicle management," it will give operators real time messages about maintenance issues and will likely catch small problems before they become big ones and interrupt passenger service. The program will be costly upfront but is projected to pay for itself in four months.
"If we save one engine, we're saving $45,000," Collier said.
That software even tracks fuel efficiency and how a bus could be driven more efficiently. Collier said the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is using the system and is leading the way.
"RFTA's maintenance director said the way a driver operates a bus can make between 18 and 24 percent variation of fuel economy," she said. "We'll have to take a hard look at what that means but luckily we have RFTA to use as a model."
In partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation, the ultimate goal is to have public service along the entire I-70 corridor to Grand Junction. If and when that happens, transit networks from all over the state will be linked. A rider could commute from Vail to Aspen by bus if desired. Collier is on three subcommittees with CDOT, working toward that goal.
"We're setting ourselves up with a foundation to make good decisions in the future," Collier said. "I'm very proud of what we're doing right now."