'Supply' reins bus demand

City hopes to fully staff transit

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— As the busy winter season approaches, the city's free bus system is forcing an age-old Economics 101 question: As demand rises, what will happen to supply?

"The demand for transit is beginning to grow," said Transit Director George Krawzoff. "The demand potential is based on our ability to put the service on the road."

Despite difficulties in hiring new bus drivers last winter that forced the city to cut back the frequency of its bus schedule, bus ridership is up from last year. Unfortunately, the Transit Department may not be able to hire enough drivers to handle the potential onslaught of demand for bus service this winter.

A total of 738,000 riders have used the bus service this year through Aug. 31. That count is already up 4 percent from last year at the same time. It's also 2.5 percent higher than ridership totals for 1998, a record year for the service. Bus ridership will likely shoot past one million again this year, Krawzoff said.

With Steamboat growing every year, additional residents and tourists are looking to the city's buses for transportation. In addition, the hotels in Steamboat have been relying heavily on the city's bus system.

"We tell everybody about the service upon arrival. It's very convenient and it's free," said Larry Wheeler, the manager of Holiday Inn. "In the winter we use the city bus as a supplement to our free shuttle."

While some resorts and hotels have their own shuttle services for their customers, many encourage city bus use.

"In the winter, if you're going out to dinner or doing something in town, it's a great idea to take the free bus rather than brave snow conditions," Wheeler said.

Andy Wirth, the vice president of marketing for Steamboat Ski and Resort Co. said that he often dissuades tourists from renting cars if they are worried about the cost.

"We do highlight the city's transportation service," Wirth said.

With demand continuing to grow, the only variable holding the Transit Department back is its ability to find the drivers to work.

"We have an adequate number of buses for the anticipated need," Krawzoff said. "Unfortunately, our hiring problems work against that."

The department currently employs 19 full-time bus drivers, but hopes to increase that number to 50 by the beginning of the ski season. Without at least 35 drivers this winter, the department cannot expect to offer the same service levels as in the past, said Barry Hoffman, a bus driver supervisor at the Transit Department. Just two new people have registered for training since the department put out ads for winter help.

"The phone's not exactly ringing off the hook," Hoffman said.

In the past, the city employed more seasonal drivers interested in finding work to supplement their skiing habit, Krawzoff said. Nowadays, the demographic has shifted, with more family-oriented people looking for work. With the shortage of affordable housing, the city is hard-pressed to find the right people for the jobs, Krawzoff said. And with all of the employment options in Steamboat during the winter, many of them better-paying than driving a bus, finding good employees or any employees for that matter is a difficult task.

Krawzoff recently raised the starting salary to $10.91 an hour to provide for the increase in the cost of living.

Wages now constitute at least 80 percent of the Transit Department's budget, Krawzoff said.

Regardless of the difficulties involved in luring the right candidates to Steamboat, Krawzoff is confident that he will be able to find the drivers the city needs for this winter. Of the 30 employees he is looking to hire for the winter, five or six returning drivers have already expressed interest in coming back. He has proposed to increase the frequency of the buses so that they will arrive every 20 minutes this winter and is attempting to secure money in the 2001 budget to achieve that goal.

"The question for the community is how does it continue to afford the same services," Krawzoff said. "With wages going up and a fixed budget, you have to cut from service levels."

Last year, the City Council decided to budget for service at 30-minute intervals at Krawzoff's insistence, because he couldn't hire enough drivers to fill the extra time slots.

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