Summit Stage set to add Park County commuter bus with stops in Alma and Fairplay | SummitDaily.com

Summit Stage set to add Park County commuter bus with stops in Alma and Fairplay

Summit Stage will soon be rolling out a bus route from Breckenridge to Alma and Fairplay in neighboring Park County, part of an emerging five-year operations plan that could significantly change the free bus system's routes for the first time in years.

Summit Stage, which is run by the county government, is still in talks with officials in Park and Summit counties but has secured preliminary financial commitments from the jurisdictions involved, operations manager Geoff Guthrie said.

Transportation officials have mulled the idea of a commuter line into Park County for years, and a recent rider survey showed that the idea is highly popular with riders, the majority of whom are full-time locals that use the bus to commute.

The cost of purchasing a bus has presented the biggest obstacle. But the Colorado Department of Transportation is now prepared to donate a bus for the route, clearing the way for the new route as soon as the late summer.

"We told the group here's a draft proposed timetable structured as a commuter route, so like two or three runs from Fairplay into Breckenridge in the morning and then vice versa in the evening, similar to the Leadville route," Guthrie said, referring to a December meeting. "We gave everybody a tentative, ballpark estimate of operating costs based on the amount of trips that we're going to offer."

The Leadville commuter route, known as the Lake County Link, will provide the framework for the new route. Since its inception in 2009, the route has seen tremendous growth, from roughly 4,000 annual riders to around 26,000 last year, Guthrie said.

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The growing popularity of the route likely reflects how rising cost of living in Summit County and an acute shortage of housing have pushed many workers to the more affordable Lake County, Guthrie said. The same is likely true for Park County, and Guthrie expects the new route would be popular as well.

"Anecdotally we're seeing way more people moving over there than ever before because they're simply being priced out of Summit County," he said.

Sixty-two percent of Summit Stage riders are locals, and 44 percent ride the bus almost every day, according to the latest rider survey. Serving that core ridership is one of the system's top priorities, Guthrie said. But it's also important to start reaching people who drive their own cars because it's faster and more convenient.

"We need to attract the single-occupancy vehicle people who can afford their own car and can afford that drive to work," Guthrie said. " So if they hop on the bus instead, we can reduce congestion all around. The challenge is making it convenient enough so that people will actually do that."

To that end, Summit Stage is considering a circulator system of routes separate from the large town-to-town lines. The Silverthorne to Keystone line is currently the most popular among those because it stops in Dillon Valley, a community of mostly locals and full-time residents.

Large, 40-passenger buses would continue to travel those routes but would make fewer stops in town, with the goal of moving as quickly as possible back and forth over highways. A second set of circulator lines could then use a fleet of smaller vehicles to shuttle people to different spots within towns.

That is likely to be part of Summit Stage's next five-year operating plan, set to be developed by consultants this summer after a bidding process. Those recommendations could include a direct Frisco to Dillon line made possible by a recent handshake deal with local officials to exempt buses from weight restrictions on Dillon Dam Road.

The plan will also address how to maintain and upgrade Summit Stage's fleet, which could include hybrid or electric buses in the future. Guthrie said Summit County's bus system needs to keep pace with the development that has dramatically changed the area's complexion in the past decade.

Now, for instance, shoulder season lulls are basically nonexistent from Summit Stage's perspective, requiring the system to keep its fleet of buses and drivers at nearly full strength year-round.

"What we've been noticing is that it's time for us to analyze our current route structure and then try to figure out how to more efficiently and quickly move people between our main stations," Guthrie said.