Generally speaking, public transit is more cost-effective, efficient and better for the environment than private transit.
The Colorado Department of Transportation is leaning into these truths with its commitment to providing routes to and from cities with its Express (IX) bus service that connects commuters along the I-25 Front Range and I-70 Mountain Corridors. By linking major local transit systems together, the Bustang service responds to demand from the traveling public to have a reliable transit alternative along the highest traveled corridors in the state.
Bustang is managed by the Colorado Department of Transportation, which has contracted with Ace Express Coaches to run Bustang’s North, South and West Line service. The westbound service, which runs daily, including on holidays and weekends, includes such stops as the Denver Union Station, Lakewood and Grand Junction — among others. Each Bustang coach is equipped with a restroom, bike racks, free Wi-Fi, power outlets and USB ports. There is also a wheelchair lift and two wheelchair securement areas on each coach.
Michael E. Timlin, senior manager mobility operations/deputy director of the division of transit and rail, has seen firsthand the advantages of having such a service in place. He came on board in 2013 to launch the bus transit program and has since watched the momentum grow over the years.
“We’re ecstatic about how successful it’s been,” he said. “And now we want to expand it, even though we’re in the post-COVID recovery phase. Particularly the West Line is recovering at a much faster rate than the rest of our system. Right now, I can tell you that ridership has recovered back to about 70% of pre-COVID, which is really good.”
He attributes this rebound to the fact the West Line is less dependent on commuters. Instead, it’s more leisure and essential travelers — “those who need to go shopping, go to the doctor, come into town to get to catch a flight or catch Amtrak or whatever.”
Considering this renewed activity, he said Bustang is in a planning phase now, but it’s fixated on addressing one facet related to operations.
“One issue we’re dealing with now — and not just in Colorado — but nationwide is the very long-standing and probably continuing shortage of CDL drivers,” he said.
Then there’s also the issue of congestion related to explosive population growth.
“We have a lot of world-class ski resorts, just west of the city,” he said. “And traffic becomes a nightmare on weekends, where we can go 70 miles at bumper-to-bumper traffic on Friday night, Saturday morning, Sunday afternoons. And on holiday weekends, it’s even worse.”
In response, Timlin said Bustang introduced an innovative approach, borrowing an idea from the private transit industry.
“They started using vans to operate transit elements for first and last mile to and from train stations to get people home, so they don’t have to use a car,” he said. “So, we took that idea, and we came up with (our own concept) and decided to use it.”
The concept met Bustang’s needs in terms of compliance and practicality. That’s because drivers don’t necessarily have to have a CDL if the vehicle has 14 passengers or fewer, he said. He also pointed out the fact Colorado has other infrastructure issues. For example, they have some narrow canyons on Interstate-70, which means the Express Lanes are narrow, too. It can be dangerous when the road gets congested. The vans, however, are small enough that they can safely navigate that stretch of the highway.
Timlin said the Bustang service is solving other issues, too, at the same time.
“We’ve targeted traffic in the corridor to mitigate the traffic — not just for tourism — but for the residents that live in the corridor because they have a problem getting around,” he said. “And the other issue is because of the mountainous area here, the greenhouse gas emissions are very delicate. And we want to make sure that we keep the air clean, and the only way we can do that is to cut down on the vehicle miles traveled in the state.”
To that end, he said Bustang plans to introduce hourly service between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Friday, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. This means people can choose when and where they want to go. He also acknowledges any fuel emissions aren’t great for the planet, but officials plan to address that sooner rather than later when the Bustang service transitions to emissions-free electric vehicles within the next five or six years.