1 of ECO Transit’s routes will stop charging a fare beginning in November
Eagle Valley Transportation Authority continues to work toward fare-free zone running from Edwards to Vail
The Eagle Valley Transportation Authority has taken a big step toward increasing the accessibility and affordability of public transportation in Eagle County. During its meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 13, the board passed Resolution 2023-21, committing to contracting a bus service to provide fare-free rides to everyone on the Vail-Beaver Creek Express line.
One of the services proposed in the initial ballot measure posed to voters creating the Eagle Valley Transportation Authority in Nov. 2022 was a fare-free ECO Transit zone running from Edwards to Vail. While implementing fare-free busing throughout much of Eagle County is complicated by a number of factors, including limited ECO buses and bus drivers, making the Vail-Beaver Creek Express line fare-free initiated the process.
The fare-free service on the Vail-Beaver Creek Express line, which currently charges the regular ECO Transit rate and has stops at Beaver Creek Village, Avon Station, Lionshead, and the Vail Transportation Center, will begin in November 2023, with the exact date to be set at the completion of negotiations with the contract bus service.
Preparing for ridership increases
Among the many options for a first step toward creating the fare-free zone, the Vail-Beaver Creek Express was selected because its limited range makes it easier to introduce a big change.
“Operationally, it exists somewhat separately from the rest of the ECO transit routes,” said Tanya Allen, executive director of the Eagle Valley Transportation Authority.
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It is also the line with the greatest capacity to accommodate an increase in the number of passengers riding the bus.
“One of the challenges of moving to fare-free is the impact that reducing fares and increasing services has on ridership,” Allen said.
Reducing or eliminating bus fares usually causes an increase in ridership. According to modeling done when the transportation authority ballot measure was first created, going fare-free could lead to a ridership increase of 50 percent or more on ECO Transit buses. During the winter of 2021-22, when the Vail-Beaver Creek Express bus fare rate was reduced from $7 to $4, ridership jumped by 40.5%, Allen said.
The fare-free zone proposed in the ballot measure in Nov. 2022, which runs from Edwards to Vail, already has “serious capacity issues,” according to Allen, which would only be further complicated by going fare-free at this time.
“We already have more riders than we can accommodate with our existing buses and equipment, and so there is additional groundwork that we need to do there to begin moving that section of the system to fare-free,” Allen said.
To prevent overcrowding, the Vail-Beaver Creek Express bus will run more frequently this winter than it has in recent years. Though the winter schedule has not yet been finalized, the line is expected to operate from roughly 7:30 a.m. through 7 p.m., with half-hourly service throughout the day, and 20-minute service during peak times in the mornings and evenings.
The increased frequency and decreased cost of the Vail-Beaver Creek Express is expected to alleviate some of the ridership pressure from the U.S. Highway 6 bus line, which has been so overcrowded at peak times that buses have been forced to leave riders behind. Additional alleviation for Highway 6 route overcrowding comes in the form of more frequent service.
To provide the fare-free Vail-Beaver Creek Express, the transportation authority is entering into a three-year contract with the company SP+, which will provide the necessary additional buses and staff required to provide the extra service. Contracting out the fare-free bus means the ECO buses and drivers that formerly made up the Vail-Beaver Creek Express line can instead move to the Highway 6 line, providing more frequent bus service.
With more buses and drivers, the Highway 6 bus will run in the winter every half hour in the evenings between 6 and 11 p.m. rather than the hourly service of recent years. There will also be an additional late-night bus leaving the Vail Transportation Center at 1 a.m.
Creating a larger fare-free zone, from Edwards to Vail, remains a priority for the Eagle Valley Transportation Authority. The authority is actively working on acquiring more buses and hiring more employees to be able to accommodate the future increased ridership expected to accompany free busing. Transportation authority staff and board members have identified housing as a primary factor in recruiting and maintaining employees, and roughly 25 percent of the authority’s budget for 2024 will go to creating more housing opportunities for employees.
Preview of next meeting: Potential fare reductions
During the Sept. 13 meeting, the board also discussed the possibility of reducing the cost of ECO bus fares overall, a topic that will receive a final decision at the board’s October meeting.
ECO Transit fares have not decreased — barring the temporary elimination of ECO bus fares during the pandemic for safety reasons, and the Vail-Beaver Creek Express decrease in 2021 — in recent history, or potentially ever. In 2009, ECO bus rates increased from $3 to $4, and have remained the same price ever since. The transportation authority plans to make use of some of its roughly $12 million budget in 2023 to ease the cost burden on ECO bus riders.
Three options were proposed to board members: Increasing the employer bulk pass discount by 15 percent, reducing the cost of the monthly pass by 23.5 percent, and implementing a system-wide pass discount on regular fares of 25 percent. The proposed changes were “based on trying to manage that issue of wanting to provide some relief but not wanting to create additional overcrowding issues,” Allen said.
A finalized suggestion for the fare reduction is expected to come before the transportation authority board at its October meeting, following further research by staff. The transportation authority board and staff are proceeding carefully to “make sure that we’re not trying to do a good thing and instead making it more difficult for people who rely on the transportation to get where they’re going,” Allen said.
The Eagle Valley Transportation Authority meets on the second Wednesday of every month, beginning at noon in the Avon Town Council chambers. At the last meeting, there was a discussion about altering the start time, and any changes to the schedule, as well. The meeting agenda and packet can be found on the organization’s website at EagleValleyRTA.org.
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