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The regional bus between Steamboat and Craig had a record number of passengers last year.

 

A Steamboat Springs Transit bus passes through Hayden on Wednesday, January 25, 2023. The regional line between Steamboat Springs and Craig had more passengers last year than ever before. John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot and Today

The regional bus line between Steamboat Springs and Craig had more passengers in 2022 than ever before, surpassing the previous 2019 record by about 23%.

The increase is another 7,700 regional bus trips from the previous high. Although the regional line has yet to reach its capacity, some passengers have experienced overcrowded buses, sparking discussions on how to increase the number of seats available.

“Some days, some buses, buses are full, and other days or other buses still have good capacity, but it’s definitely growing,” said Jonathan Flint, Transport Manager for Steamboat Springs. “We are seeing a large number of passengers, their growth, and it is definitely moving forward, requiring additional services to be explored.”

Flint said part of the reason for the regional increase is likely due to higher gas prices this year, making the bus a more affordable option. The stellar snowfall experienced this winter in the Yampa Valley also likely helps, as some drivers prefer someone else to drive on slippery roads.

Expanding the regional bus line is not as easy as adding more time to the schedule. Last week, Steamboat Public Works director John Snyder told the city council that such an expansion would likely require another bus, as well as more drivers – a challenge Steamboat would be able to handle.

But Flint said it might be time to start talking about such an expansion because Steamboat, Craig and Routt County’s efforts to study regional transportation authority need to start any day now.

“We will need additional equipment and everything that comes with it,” Flint said, adding that the expansion will also require more drivers, maintenance staff and bus storage space. “The Regional Transportation Authority is, in my opinion, probably the best option, the cleanest option.”

Passenger numbers on the regional line between Steamboat Springs and Craig topped 41,000 last year, the highest ever. Steamboat Springs/Photo courtesy of

The regional line’s growth is due to Steamboat Springs Transit seeing a faster recovery in ridership from the COVID-19 pandemic than other transit systems across the country, Flint said.

Although passenger numbers on local routes have not returned to record levels, Steamboat has increased by about 50% compared to 2021, when federal regulations limited the number of people who can be on the bus. Compared to the same period last year, the number of passengers increased by 34%, according to Flint.

“We are seeing these numbers coming back to pre-pandemic levels a little faster than they expected,” Flint said. “I expected to see probably another two to three years before we see pre-pandemic numbers and the fact that it’s coming back so quickly is great to see.”

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There are a variety of factors that Flint says could lead to a renewal in ridership. There are no federal transportation regulations anymore, and people are generally more comfortable traveling by bus.

Also, as with regional buses, higher gas prices and snowstorms likely attracted more passengers.

A bright spot among the numbers, Flint said, was how many people took advantage of the city’s yellow zone option. The Yellow Zone option is a microtransit option that can provide trips to certain parts of the city, and last year saw passenger numbers close to 22,000 — just short of the 22,700 seen in 2018.

“We are seeing growth take off and I am very excited to see that because I think the area we serve is the perfect template for microtransit type service,” Flint said.

Changes to other routes include increasing the frequency of buses on the Red and Green Lines, with buses now running every 15 minutes instead of every 20. This has helped keep fewer people busy and make these lines more convenient.

Another route that has shown growth is the new ExpreSST line, which opened in 2021 and provides faster connections between the city center and the mountains than other buses. The line also opens up more seats on other buses with similar routes, Flint said.

Despite the increase in passenger numbers, Flint said things were still not back to normal. He estimates overall service levels are still 15-20% below 2019 levels. For example, the blue line did not return, and the night service is shorter and only lasts until 23:30 instead of 2:20.

Although the state is now technically fully staffed, Flint said he hopes to add four or five drivers, especially to attend special events in late winter and spring that place additional strain on drivers.

“Right now we have a full staff, but I want to take care of the drivers we have and make sure we don’t push them too hard,” Flint said. It would be nice to have a backup.

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