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Mountain Express: Changes ahead for local transit system

With only a few Pagosa Country residents relying on public transit to get to their medical appointments, run errands or go to work, many in the area are unaware that Archuleta County even has a transit system, let alone use it.

But John Egan, director of the Archuleta County transit system, and Karen Kohake, Archuleta County Special Projects Manager, have big plans to change the public image, reach and ridership of the system.

According to the Archuleta County Mountain Express Web site, the bus system provides transportation for the public in and around Pagosa Springs and provides scheduled bus service to 22 bus stops in the downtown, Pagosa Lakes and Aspen Springs areas.

Because the transit system is not currently well utilized, Egan is on a mission to collect public input to help officials plan the future of the Mountain Express.

“We currently have 22 stops,” Egan said, “but we don’t know if they’re the right stops.” Egan would like to increase the number of stops in the system, determine if the current stops are the right ones, and move them around if necessary.

“The system as it was originally designed has become dysfunctional,” Egan explained. Due to the drastic budget cuts following the financial crisis of 2007, the county was forced to reduce the number of runs made by the Mountain Express. As a result, ridership has declined, and even disappeared completely in some areas.

Egan is seeing low numbers, and most of the people who are using the shuttles are doing so out of necessity — for medical reasons or lack of a driver’s license.

And that’s what Kohake is hoping to change.

Kohake has a proven track record acquiring grants and funding for county projects, and she is pursuing the finances to revamp several aspects of the current bus system.

“We need to provide a good bus service to the county,” she enthusiastically exclaimed. She echoed Egan’s observations that, right now, people are using the bus as a last resort.

Kohake sees the need to rework the whole system, to not only provide a good service, but to encourage people in the community to ride the bus.

“The bus is an economic and environmentally smart idea,” she said. “A good system can save on parking in the downtown area, provide a way for locals, tourists and visitors to get around, keep vehicles off of the roads and saves money on gas.”

Part of the initial overhaul effort is to reacquaint the public with the system and determine what people need.

“The motivating factor is to serve the public,” Egan said. “The county owns the equipment, but the public owns the system.”

Egan is working to create a good public image for the bus system, as well as provide a reliable, safe and affordable method of transportation to the community.

The Mountain Express is part of the Archuleta County government and is funded by the transportation budget in the county’s general fund, as well as by money from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). As part of the federal government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the state of Colorado received $12.5 million in funding for transit projects in non-urbanized rural areas and Kohake is working to tap into those grants.

“We have the economic means to make the changes happen,” she said. “We want to know where the system needs to be.”

Kohake and Egan are seeking input regarding the stop locations and pickup times that the community would prefer — the elements of a system that will get people aboard the shuttles.

Once the public has provided input, work will begin to design new routes and times, as well as to make the shuttles more visible. Plans for 2010 include a new schedule, an increase in the number of runs, a new look and even a new name. Egan joked that when you see the Mountain Express shuttle now, it could be a courier service or an advertisement for a high-altitude laxative. He wants public input and ideas on a new name and a new look for the shuttles. His goal is to put the transit system in the public’s eye with good signage at shuttle stops and colors on the vehicles so you’ll know it when they’re coming.

In addition to changes in the schedule and the look of vehicles and stops, another concern is the ongoing maintenance of the shuttles. There are currently three shuttles in the fleet, but maintaining them is difficult due to proprietary parts.

Egan hopes to invest in “real busses,” not just airport shuttles, that can handle local transportation needs as well as be worked on by county maintenance staff.

“The busses will need to be efficient,” he explained, “not just for the drivers and riders, but for the mechanics.” Egan also stressed the need for any vehicles in the system to be appropriate for our changing mountain weather conditions.

Although Aspen Springs resident Ron Gustafson only rides the Mountain Express part of the year, he is optimistic about the upcoming changes. Gustafson is a volunteer at the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce from May through October, and he takes advantage of the shuttle stop in Aspen Springs to save on car trips to town. Gustafson leaves his car at the shuttle stop and gets a ride downtown on the Mountain Express. His wife, Cindy, drives into town later for errands and to meet her husband for their game of bridge. In the evening, they drive in one vehicle back to Aspen Springs where Ron gets in his car and drives the few blocks home.

“We used to ride the shuttle more,” Ron explained, “but when the number of runs was cut back a few years ago, we don’t use it as much.” He sees the need for more runs to serve the community, but noted that when he was a bell-ringer for Salvation Army at City Market last weekend he didn’t see anyone using the shuttle, even though it was free for the special Pagosa shopping weekend.

For Kohake and Egan, all input, even negative, is helpful to determine where changes need to be made. A 15-year resident of Archuleta County and a previous county commissioner, Egan is only two months into the position of transportation director. He has already traveled to Denver where he received three days of intensive training on the principles of transit management. The thick handbook is within easy reach on his desk and he refers to it often.

“The information I received in the training was just the tip of the iceberg,” Egan said. As a county transit agency, the Mountain Express needs to be in compliance with federal transit regulations, Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, and other federal and state rules, so there’s a lot more to planning than just getting a bus out on a route. But Egan is confident that the Archuleta County transit system will grow into something the entire community will benefit from.

“There is a lot of funding out there for transportation,” Kohake said, “and John has a great vision for where we can be.”

“I see a lot of potential with the Mountain Express,” added Egan, whose first goal is to show the public that we have a transit system and encourage them to get involved to help make it better.

Egan stressed that the busses need to be where the people are, and the current system isn’t doing that. He noted that county demographics have changed and needs have changed, and that Mountain Express hopes to be a leader in meeting the needs of the community.

Another issue being discussed is the fee for using the shuttle. Currently it costs just one dollar per ride, but there is no difference in fees whether a person is staying downtown and riding from one store to another or riding from downtown all the way to Aspen Springs. Egan is also contemplating offering youth discount passes and other special rates.

Both residents and visitors are invited to voice their opinions about the Mountain Express, whether it is a request for a stop, ideas for a new name or colors, or rate and schedule suggestions.

All questions and comments will be a part of a complete review that should bring about changes in early 2010.

“I think the only way we’ll fail is to not pursue this,” Egan said.

Mountain Express riders who fill out a brief survey form this month will receive a coupon for a free ride. To voice comments or make suggestions, you can reach Egan at 264-2250, or at jegan@archuletacounty.org.