Will skier-focused bus service be a success? | VailDaily.com

Will skier-focused bus service be a success?

The Colorado Department of Transportation's weekday Bustang service in the mountains has been a success. The agency is looking to expand transit services with a test run of a day-skier route called SnowStang. SnowStang buses will run this weekend and the weekend of Feb. 25.

EAGLE COUNTY — Weekend traffic is crazy between the Denver area and mountain resorts. A small bit of help may be on the way.

The Colorado Department of Transportation this weekend launched the first of a two-weekend trial run of bus service between the Denver area and six mountain resorts, including Vail. The second run is the weekend of Feb. 25.

The skier service is an extension of the transportation department's popular Bustang bus service. That service runs from the mountains to the city on weekdays, and is aimed primarily at people who have business in the metro area.

That service has been a hit, particularly between Glenwood Springs and Denver. In fact, the service was expanded last year to include a second run from Vail to Denver.

Since the day the Bustang service was announced, state residents have asked for weekend service from Denver to the resorts.

The trial service, called SnowStang, is an experiment to see if that service is feasible. In this case, feasibility means answering whether the service can pay its own way.

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Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Bob Wilson said in a phone interview that the weekday service is subsidized by the department. Funds aren't available for weekends, so those buses have to support themselves.

$60 round trip

That means a round trip on a SnowStang bus to Vail will cost $60. A round trip is $34 on weekdays.

But an average passenger car will burn about $20 worth of gas to travel the 180 miles between Vail and the Denver Federal Center, where the SnowStang picks up passengers. Add in another $25 to park in Vail all day, and a bus ticket starts to look more reasonable, especially considering that the buses are equipped with Wi-Fi, restrooms and drivers.

While the weekday service has been successful, Wilson said there are a number of questions about weekend skier service, primarily: which areas are the most popular?

The way to answer those questions is with a trial.

If the department's Bus to the Broncos experiment is any indication, then winter service to ski areas stands a good chance of success.

Wilson said Bustang buses were used to take football fans from Fort Collins and Colorado Springs to a pair of Denver Broncos games in October of 2016. The service was successful enough that buses were assigned to games in November, December and January.

If the SnowStang is a success, Wilson said, then it's possible there could be additional service to the high country as soon as March.

As of Thursday, none of the SnowStang buses was sold out yet. Still, snow could bring some last-minute riders.

While the ski season service is intriguing, the highest traffic counts come in July at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels. Summer service is a possibility, Wilson said, but summer gear tends to be more bulky than skis or snowboards.

Wilson said the Bustang buses have bicycle racks, and there's room for more in the lower storage areas. Whether or not people will want to stash their bikes in a pile is another question.

Growing transit options

Sage Pierson is a member of the Minturn Town Council and that town's representative to the Eagle County Regional Transportation Authority Board of Directors. That board oversees the county's ECO bus service. Pierson said she's eager to see if the state's new service can be successful. And, she said, there seems to be demand for transit service in the area.

Minturn for some time had little in the way of ECO service. After lobbying from the town and businesses, ECO recently added two runs each in the morning and evening. To encourage riders, there was a recent event at the Saloon in Minturn that included a giveaway of 50 passes good for 10 rides each.

"It's been very successful," Pierson said. Most riders use their passes for recreation, she said, with about one-third using their passes to get to work.

While Pierson mostly focuses on local service, the buses directly to Vail are a good thing, no matter where they come from. People will use the SnowStang, she believes.

Pierson grew up in the valley, but would sometimes visit her grandmother in Denver. From there, she'd sometimes ride the ski train from Denver to Winter Park.

"We'd get on, we'd go and then come back," she said. "It was great."

The bus from Minturn to Vail is a 12-minute trip. It's one partial solution to scarce parking in town. The SnowStang can serve a similar role, she said.

Wilson said the SnowStang is one of many ideas transportation planners are looking at right now. The west leg of the Bustang is the most successful, he said. That may lead to bigger things.

"The possibilities remain for a lot of options," Wilson said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

By the numbers:

50: Passenger capacity on the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Bustang buses.

34,724: Average daily traffic totals at the Eisenhower-Johnson tunnels in February, 2016.

$60: Round-trip ticket to Vail on the new “SnowStang” bus.

$25: Cost for between four and 24 hours of ski-season parking in a Vail Parking Structure.

More information: Go to https://www.codot.gov/travel/bustang.