Steamboat Springs The winter tourism season will always claim the biggest share of ridership at Steamboat Springs Transit. But it is the summer season that has logged modest, yet steady growth while winter has chilled during three straight years of decline.
City Transit Director George Krawzoff thinks he knows where the growth is coming from.
"We've done very well in summer," Krawzoff said. "I think it's growth in local riders. Every summer season since 1997, we've taken a step up. Summer is going gangbusters, but winter needs to recover."
Make no mistake, the typical winter month easily logs three times as many bus passengers as the typical summer month.
For example, January 2002 saw 146,653 riders and June saw just 35,557. Yet, January was down 13 percent from the same month in 2001 and June was up 9 percent.
The reason winter tourists are more apt to ride the bus than summer tourists isn't difficult to ascertain. More winter tourists arrive by plane and rely on mass transit than do summer visitors. Summer visitors tend to begin their trips from home in the family vehicle. But when it comes to explaining the three-year decline of winter ridership and five years of summer growth, there may be trends within the trend.
Skier visits at Steamboat last winter were down a fraction of a percentage, or about 2,300 skiers for a total of 1.002 million. At the same time, Front Range visitation was up 20 percent at the ski area. Those vacationing skiers are more apt to drive their own cars up from Denver. They stayed here, on average, 3.6 days.
The likelihood that winter vacationers will use city transit also depends upon where they are staying, Krawzoff said. Visitors who enjoy condo shuttle service may not be as inclined to ride the city's free-to-rider bus system.
Ironically, riding SST in summer is more convenient in some ways than in winter. The routes are contracted in summer, but the frequency is greater. Summer bus riders can expect a bus to come by every 20 minutes. But the service in winter is every 30 minutes. That's because Krawzoff only needs four drivers over the summer, but struggles to fill the needed 16 driver positions in winter. Winter service is often upgraded at peak demand when transit managers are able to throw extra buses into the fray.
Despite the decline in January and February this
year, summer gains have been able to put SST ridership ahead of last year's pace at the end of July.
"We ended the winter behind, and we've gained back all that ridership," Krawzoff said. "We're now 1.5 percent ahead, year over year and we're very proud of that."
Last winter saw another mini-trend Krawzoff said, when regional bus ridership dropped off after years of steady growth. He believes that drop of 2,400 riders, most of them commuters from other communities in Routt and Moffat counties, was attributable to soft spots in the ski season and an expanding bed base in the resort. Some property management companies opened condo units as housing for employees, reducing the need for them to find affordable rental housing in communities like Craig, and commute to work in Steamboat.
Fortunately, Krawzoff said, City Council and the Board of County Commissioners agreed last year's experience with regional bus ridership was an anomaly and resolved to maintain funding for the regional program. Almost 12,000 riders used the regional service last winter. Ridership peaked at 14,300 in the winter of 2000-2001.
Ski season bus ridership staged a rally in late March and ridership grew 9.6 percent to 164,145 passengers. The rally carried into April when ridership was up 22 percent over the previous year. May grew by 9 percent, as did June. July was a curious story. The city typically runs special shuttle buses into Howelsen Hill for the Fourth of July fireworks display. Those shuttles are so popular they provide a significant spike in overall ridership for the month. The show was canceled due to fire danger this year. July ridership grew 4 percent in spite of the aberration at the holiday, from 52,870 passengers to 54,784, Krawzoff said.
The challenge Krawzoff faces is uncertainty from year to year about whether he will be able to hire enough bus drivers to offer 20-minute frequency in winter.
The situation is compounded by the need to print the winter bus schedule in late winter, before the lifts crank up for the winter and ski season hiring begins in earnest.
Last year, Krawzoff pursued a special visa program that allowed him to bolster the ranks of bus drivers with Australian nationals.
The Australian bus drivers won't be as noticeable this winter; Krawzoff said the city decided not to pursue the program out of sensitivity to job layoffs nationwide and the possibility that American citizens might need city of Steamboat transit jobs. Krawzoff said he has an "uneasy feeling" about whether sufficient workers will apply for bus driving jobs in Steamboat this winter.
The good news is that bus drivers who do apply for jobs have a good chance to be driving one of five brand new buses. The city will achieve its goal this winter of retiring all of the old TMC buses circa 1981 and replacing them with new Gillig buses.