BRECKENRIDGE - When the town of Breckenridge launched the Breckenridge Free Ride in 1997, the newborn transit system included one route and two trolleys.
Fifteen years on, the Free Ride has hit its prime, with nine routes, 13 buses and better things still to come.
"We have grown up as a transit system," Breck transit manager Maribeth Lewis-Baker stated in an email to the Daily. "The town recognizes that the use of mass transit is important to maintaining the livability and sustainability of the Breckenridge community."
Breck officials are marking the Free Ride's big 1-5 today with a party and a present for riders: an interactive schedule feature that allows passengers to track their bus before it arrives at the stop. It's the first in a series of transit technology upgrades set to go live this season, and will coincide with a ceremony at the Breckenridge Transfer Center at 2:30 this afternoon.
Breckenridge Mayor John Warner and state and federal transit officials are slated to speak and bus riders will receive free hot drinks and cookies all afternoon.
The interactive schedule feature will be followed in December by a new LCD screen in the Breckenridge Transfer Center, which will display bus arrival times, and website improvements later in the season.
"We have a lot of exciting things going on," Lewis-Baker said.
The Breckenridge Free Ride began as a two-trolley Summit Stage route that ran from the City Market south down Main Street to Beaver Run.
In 1997, Breckenridge took over, creating an independent system with a bigger fleet and expanded service.
"It used to be more of a tourist base," said Amy McAninch, a driver who has been with Breckenridge Free Ride from Day 1. "People would get on to ride around town and get to the shops. It was more of a novelty ride when the trolleys were out."
But two years later, the town upgraded to a fleet of full-sized buses and developed a more consistent schedule, winning the system year-round local ridership with local employees, who remain an anchor user group for the service today.
Ridership hit a then all-time high in 2008, when transit officials credited the Free Ride with saving 202,336 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions by getting people out of their cars. The system won bragging rights to the title "Small Transit System of the Year," that year.
As the Free Ride has become more established, what was once a seasonal job, with a team of rookie drivers at the start of every season, has evolved into sought-after long-term employment.
For McAninch, who was named Driver of the Year in 2008 after going eight years without an accident, it's the best position in town.
"I have the best desk job in the world - one that is mobile with great views," she said after winning the award four years ago. "The people that I work with and getting to meet all kinds of new people are what make my job so great."
But hard times were ahead for the young transit system. Breckenridge leadership pulled back hard on spending when the recession hit town coffers, and transit was on the list of cuts. Bus service was reduced, and some routes were removed altogether.
As the economy recovered, the Breckenridge Town Council began to reinvigorate the system, agreeing to restore summer service to two routes next year. At the same time, management has found new and innovative ways to manage transit costs.
Earlier this year, Lewis-Baker leveraged a federal grant to implement an on-board tablet program that digitized the process of tracking ridership numbers.
The program not only saves the Free Ride staff time, but could earn it royalty income in the future as the tablet solution is marketed nationwide.
Now Breckenridge leaders are looking ahead to the Free Ride's future, which may intertwine with that of the adjacent ski area bus system.
A recent study indicated a merger of the two systems could improve customer service and image without significantly increasing costs for the town or the resort.
"We are really excited about it," Councilwoman Jennifer McAtamney said of the study results. "There are tremendous opportunities that have very little cost and can be implemented for the upcoming winter season. It also gave us a clear path forward toward some type of consolidation with the ski area that will benefit our locals and our visitors."