More of Eagle County riding the bus |

More of Eagle County riding the bus

Kathy Heicher
Eagle, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/EnterpriseTony Hernandez, 16, left, gets off an Eagle County bus from Gypsum Friday morning at the Vail Transportation Center in Vail, Colorado.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Sometime within the next few weeks, the Eagle County, Colorado bus system will haul its one-millionth passenger for this year on a valley commute.

And the numbers continue to climb. ECO administrators estimate that by the year’s end, the records will show an increase of 250,000 passenger trips over last year.

ECO Transit Director Harry Taylor says there are a lot of forces at work. A few months ago, it was the rising cost of gas that prompted many commuters to take the bus. When gasoline prices started going up last summer, bus ridership jumped 27 percent.

This month, the system is starting to see the influx of winter workers for the upvalley resort towns. The steadily increasing ridership also reflects the ongoing growth in the valley.

“Our bread and butter is the work community,” says ECO Transit Planner David Johnson.

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During regular commuter hours, the buses that run the length of the valley are packed full of riders such as construction workers, school children, office workers and resort service industry employees.

Taylor says a recent survey of bus riders revealed that 48 percent of the respondents did not have access to an automobile. Those riders depend on the bus system for their everyday transportation.

“If we stopped the buses, it would be disastrous,” says Taylor.

ECO provides bus service up and down the valley 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The routes are a mix of both regional and localized service. The system involves five specific routes, with eastbound and westbound service from Dotsero to Vail and a heavily used Highway 6 route that runs between Eagle and Vail.

There are also routes from Leadville to Vail, and from Minturn to Avon and Vail. The routes have more frequent service during the regular morning and evening commute times. In the winter, an Interstate 70 route is added, primarily to serve skiers. On snowy days with nasty roads, ridership increases notably.

Cost of a single bus ride is $3. It’s $35 for a seven-day, unlimited pass or $60 for a 30-day unlimited pass. Special rates are offered for seniors.

However, these days the bus riders aren’t just commuting workers. The buses tend to be busy at more random times ” for example, late night buses are often at capacity. And always, there is a demand for more buses and more frequent service.

“We’re in the position of treading water with our existing demand for services,” said Taylor, noting that the fluctuating cost of gas poses challenges for the ECO operation.

The bus system is funded by a half-cent county sales tax, approved by voters in 1995. ECO has a $8.3 million annual operating budget. About 80 percent of the bus system’s revenues come from sales tax. The remaining 20 percent is from bus fares.

Johnson says the ECO staff and board of directors are reluctant to raise fares at a time when citizens throughout the valley are feeling an economic pinch.

Economic factors, such as a big jump in gas prices, have a major impact on the ECO budget.

There are some routes that have service only every 30 minutes when the demand could justify buses running every 20 minute, Taylor said.

“We’re responding as well as we can. The service is adequate ” but by no means are we where we would like to be,” he said..

The county is doing a study that forecasts population and employment growth in the valley. That includes studies for short-term and longer-term needs, and, if funding becomes available, a look at rail service in the valley corridor.

Planners are paying particular attention to projects that will generate more demand, such as redevelopment in Vail and Avon, the Ginn project at Minturn, and Eagle River Station in Eagle.

The county’s long-term vision for the bus system is to increase its role as a regional provider, while reducing its function as a local provider. Think of it as a hub system, with regional links. Twenty years out, that would involve communities throughout the valley operating feeder circulator route systems (much like the systems the towns of Vail and Avon operate today) that hook into the county’s regional system.

“Right now, we’re a regional system that provides an urban level of service,” says Johnson. Currently, during peak hours, the buses on the Highway 6 route run every 15 minutes.

“And that still isn’t enough,” Johnson says. The lingering question is whether the local communities are willing, or even able, to fund and operate the feeder systems.

Meanwhile, planners are estimating that the ECO transit rider numbers will quadruple over the next 25 years.

Taylor says that 27 percent increase and ridership tied to last summer’s gas prices is telling.

“That’s proof that what we anticipate occurring in the future is beginning to happen,” he says.

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