Regional bus between Steamboat, Craig saw record ridership last year
Rider numbers across Steamboat bus system rebounding after pandemic-induced dips
The regional bus line between Steamboat Springs and Craig saw more passengers in 2022 than ever before, surpassing the previous record in 2019 by about 23%.
The increase amounts to 7,700 more trips on the regional bus over the previous high. While the regional line hasn’t reached its capacity, some riders have encountered buses that are full, prompting discussions about how to increase the number of seats available.
“On some days, some buses, the bus is full and other days or other buses there is still good capacity, but it’s definitely growing,” said Steamboat Springs Transportation Manager Jonathan Flint. “We’re seeing great ridership numbers, increases, and it’s definitely moving its way toward the forefront of needing to examine additional service.”
Flint said part of the reason for the regional increase is probably related to higher gas prices this year, making the bus a more affordable option. The stellar snowfall the Yampa Valley is experiencing this winter also probably helps, with some drivers preferring to have someone else behind the wheel on the slick roads.
Expanding the regional bus line isn’t as simple as adding more times to a schedule. Last week, Steamboat Public Works Director Jon Snyder told City Council such an expansion would likely require another bus, as well as more drivers — something that would be tough for Steamboat to take on itself.
But Flint said the timing might be right to start discussions about such an expansion because Steamboat, Craig and Routt County’s effort to explore a regional transportation authority should be starting any day now.
“We would need additional equipment and everything that goes along with that,” Flint said, adding that an expansion would also require more drivers, maintenance workers and bus storage. “A Regional Transportation Authority, in my view, is probably the best option, the cleanest option.”
The growth in the regional line comes as Steamboat Springs Transit is seeing a faster rebound in ridership following the COVID-19 pandemic than other transit systems across the country, Flint said.
While rider numbers across local routes have not returned to record levels, Steamboat saw a roughly 50% increase over 2021, when federal rules restricted how many people could be on a bus. Comparing this winter season to the same time last year, ridership is up 34%, Flint said.
“We’re seeing those numbers come back to pre-pandemic levels a little faster than they anticipated we would,” Flint said. “I was expecting to see probably another two to three years before we saw pre-pandemic numbers, and the fact that it is coming back so quickly is great to see.”
There are a variety of factors that Flint said could be leading to rejuvenated ridership. There are no longer any federal transportation guidelines in place, and people are generally more comfortable riding the bus.
Also, like with the regional bus, higher gas prices and snowstorms also probably spurred more riders.
A bright spot among the numbers were how many people used the city’s Yellow Zone option, Flint said. The Yellow Zone option is a micro transit option that can provide rides to certain parts of town, and ridership neared 22,000 last year — just below the 22,700 riders seen in 2018.
“We’re seeing growth take off, and I’m really pleased to see that because I think the area that we’re serving is a perfect template for the micro transit type service,“ Flint said.
Changes on other routes include increased bus frequency on the red and green lines, with buses now coming every 15 minutes rather than every 20. This has helped leave fewer people behind and make those lines more convenient.
Another route that has seen growth is the new ExpreSST line, which started in 2021 and makes a faster connection between downtown and the mountain than other buses. This line also opens up more seats on other buses with similar routes, Flint said.
Despite the gains in ridership, Flint said everything is not back to normal. He estimated the overall service is still 15% to 20% below 2019 levels. For example, the blue line hasn’t returned, and the late-night service is shorter, only extending until 11:30 p.m. rather than 2:20 a.m.
While technically fully staffed right now, in terms of drivers, Flint said he hopes to add four or five drivers, especially to help with special events in the late winter and spring that put an added strain on the drivers.
“We’re fully staffed right now, but I want to take care of the drivers that we have and make sure that we’re not pushing them too hard,” Flint said. “It would be nice to get a backup.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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