Steamboat Springs Transit draws more riders as gas prices soar

A passenger gets on a Steamboat Springs Transit regional bus traveling from Steamboat to Craig outside of Safeway on Tuesday, June 16, 2022.
Katy Pickens/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, June 17, to reflect Shane Gassaway’s title at Steamboat Springs Transit.

With gas prices in Colorado now pushing $5 a gallon, Steamboat Springs Transit is seeing a boost in bus riders, particularly on the regional routes.

The surge in prices — caused by a combination of rising prices of crude oil, high demand for gas post-pandemic, relatively low fuel supply and the Russian invasion of Ukraine affecting exports — has some Routt County residents opting to hop on the bus rather than drive themselves. 

“We’ve seen a ridership increase with the rise in fuel prices,” said Transit Manager Jonathan Flint.

According to Flint, 2,620 people rode the regional lines in May 2022, up 40% from 1,881 riders the year before. While ridership was down in 2021 due to the pandemic, regional ridership in May 2022 still exceeded that of May 2019 by roughly 20%. 

While general ridership still has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, there has been an increase over 60% in passengers that Steamboat Springs Transit has carried by this point in the year for 2022 compared to 2021.

Mark Griffin, a Craig resident who works near the Steamboat Resort base area, said he relies on the regional bus to make his commute every day.

“I would rather drive,” Griffin said.

He explained that while he prefers the privacy of his own vehicle, the cost of the regional bus from Craig to Steamboat in comparison to gas prices right now makes riding the bus a no-brainer.

“It’s too expensive to drive,” Griffin said. “I have to put premium in my tank, and it’s almost $5 a gallon.”

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“The real way to save when it comes to high gas prices and the higher gas prices in store are behavioral changes,” said Skyler McKinley, regional director of public affairs for Colorado AAA.

Flint explained that he was changing his own driving habits because of gas costs. Where he might have driven 10 times a week in the past, now “I’ll drive seven times and take the bus three times,” Flint said.

“Gas prices are surging to historic highs because of some structural issues,” McKinley explained. 

Crude oil prices are up, and demand for gas remains high despite those costs, McKinley explained. Since the onset of the war in Ukraine, sanctions on Russia by the United States, European Union and other entities have impacted prices.

“These structural problems are not going to be fixed in a single summer, but certainly do account for why we’re paying what we’re paying right now,” McKinley said.

Although most Steamboat buses are “series hybrid,” using a combination of energy produced by a generator and traditional fuels, Steamboat Springs Transit is still feeling the effects of increased fuel costs, according to Flint.

He explained that from January 2021 to January 2022, transit’s fuel costs increased by 58%. Now, since the first bulk fuel order in January 2022, costs have risen an additional 60%.

Supply chain issues and rising prices for bus parts and materials have also posed challenges, Flint added. 

Despite difficulties and increased costs, local transit routes remain free and regional rides have not risen in price. 

“Colorado has the most robust public transit system in the world when it comes to rural areas,” McKinley said. 

While visitors may not swap a car for a bus, local residents tend to make a change with rising gas costs. 

“Transit ridership does tend to increase when gas prices are this high,” said McKinley “The big problem is that it tends to then immediately decrease when gas prices fall again, so it’s hard to build a robust transit system with that sort of seasonality.”

Tyler Kern, operations supervisor for SST, said that recruiting drivers is another crucial dimension to maintaining bus service — particularly with increased demand for public transit.

“We’ve got a really good core group of seasonal employees,” Kern said. “Getting them back year after year is essential to our service.”

Training, Safety and Recruitment Specialist Shane Gassaway said that with the pandemic, drivers have been under a lot of stress for the past two years. 

“There’s a critical mass of drivers we need, otherwise people can be susceptible to burn out,” Gassaway said.

Beyond Steamboat Springs Transit’s traditional routes, residents can save on gas by using the Yellow Zone service, which will pick up passengers for free on-demand, similar to Uber or Lyft. The Yellow Zone has an app, and operates 7 a.m. to 6:20 p.m. daily.

Flint said that with gas prices continuing to rise, public and free transportation is more crucial than ever.

“It’s showing the importance of public transit for moving people around,” Flint said.

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