SST driving toward more riders

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— George Krawzoff has glimpsed the future of mass transit in Steamboat Springs on his computer screen, and he foresees increasing demand for bus service.

Krawzoff is the transit manager for the city and supervises Steamboat Springs Transit bus service. He's in the midst of preparing a presentation on future transit demand in the city, which he'll give before City Council July 11. On the afternoon of June 15, Krawzoff was scratching at the mouse pad on his laptop, and maneuvering through a map of the ski area base to project future mass-transit demand.

Krawzoff has plugged data about new condo and townhome projects already approved by the city into a geographic information program. The computer modeling allows him to plot future bus routes and predict when demand might make them feasible. By using industry guidelines on how many trips each housing unit will generate, Krawzoff can make some assumptions about how much demand for SST buses will increase during ski season.

"It's going to be difficult to balance growth on the existing condo route and demand for expanded service," Krawzoff predicted. He's uncertain whether the city will have the resources to expand service to city districts like west Steamboat, the Steamboat Boulevard area near the new hospital, and in neighborhoods off the Hilltop Parkway and Fish Creek Falls Road.

"If we meet the demand at the ski area base," he said, "we won't have any more vehicles for route expansion."

The city's transit managers see that the new condo and townhome projects at the base of the ski area have the potential to flood the existing bus route if occupancy levels in the new units are strong. The situation is likely to be complicated as existing public parking lots near the base of the ski area are gradually consumed by more resort development, Krawzoff said.

Bus ridership last ski season rebounded from a slow December and January impacted by marginal snow and Y2K fears. SST posted modest gains in February, March and April over the same months a year ago. There were several dates in March when ridership exceeded 8,000 passengers a day. Those gains of 5 to 7 percent per month came despite the fact that SST had to cut its service last winter from 20-minute intervals to 30-minute intervals between buses. The reduction in service came because Krawzoff was unable to hire the 45 drivers needed to operate the winter bus service at full capacity.

"We didn't really see a reduction in ridership at all," Krawzoff acknowledged. But he said he thinks it would be dangerous to reach the conclusion that SST's ability to post ridership gains with reduced service means nothing has to be done to boost service back up to previous levels.

There were times last winter, Krawzoff said, when buses on the condo loop were so full that passengers had to wait for a third bus to come by before they could get on.

"People had already made their vacation plans, so they suffered," Krawzoff said. "We probably will see a decline as a result of last winter's problems. That's not the kind of service we want to provide. It can have an impact on the economy."

The city has been steadily making strides to add to its bus fleet. City Council recently approved a match for a $400,000 federal grant that will allow it to purchase a new full-sized bus and five 25-passenger vans. The grant is enough to purchase two full-size buses if the city wishes, Krawzoff said. But the downside to the full-sized buses is that the delivery window is 18 months. The vans, which will be used on regular routes, can be integrated into the system more quickly, Krawzoff said. They will allow the city to speed its transition to a fleet that is uniformly accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

Krawzoff said, in the wake of a pending lawsuit by two local residents who allege the city has failed to make its transit system accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the city is more focused on making that transition as quickly as possible. The U.S. Justice Department has joined the lawsuit against the city.

Krawzoff said city officials also are reasonably confident they will get another federal grant of $800,000 next year, allowing the city to purchase four more full-size accessible buses. Officials should find out in October if they'll get the new grant. When the new buses finally arrive, there will be one city bus that isn't fully accessible.

The question remains whether the new buses will be enough to allow expansion of service to new areas of the city, or be just enough to keep up the level of service on existing areas of service.

The interval between buses will return to 20 minutes this summer because Krawzoff needs far fewer drivers to service the limited summer routes. And as gas prices continue to climb, there's evidence that a growing number of locals are turning to SST to get around town. In May this year, when tourists were scarce, ridership on the SST climbed by 21 percent over May 1999, from 16,716, to 20,248.

Bus ridership drops off dramatically in the spring (March saw 203,500 passengers), but Krawzoff sees the daily averages in May as a sign that SST is gaining in popularity with working people in Steamboat.

"As recently as 1997, in May the daily ridership numbers were around 250," Krawzoff said. "From the fact that we've gone from 250 a day to 600, just over the course of the last few years, says we are doing something good."

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210 or e-mail: tomross@amigo.net

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