Major Delays on First Bus to A-Basin Do Not Diminish Snowstang’s Potential
Disclosure: When Streetsblog expressed interest in covering the launch of Snowstang, a free round-trip ticket valued at $25 was provided to the reporter.
The 35 skiers and snowboarders who took the inaugural trip on Colorado’s express bus service to the Arapahoe Basin ski area faced long delays that cut into their time on the mountain and stranded them in a parking lot for two hours on the way down.
On the way up, the bus arrived at A-Basin nearly 2½ hours late as snowfall, traffic, a wrong turn and getting stuck in a parking lot slowed its arrival. Returning to Union Station, a crash closed Interstate 70, extending the scheduled 2-hour return trip to five hours and 35 minutes. But the agency is working to prevent the difficulties that came up.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure everything goes well from here on out,” said Mike Timlin, Bus Operations Manager for CDOT. “It’s in everybody’s interest to make sure this functions well.”
The A-Basin trip is a part of Snowstang, a new extension of Bustang, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s regional bus service. Routes to the Steamboat and Loveland ski areas also launched last weekend. Aside from Saturday’s A-Basin trip, no other major problems came up in the first weekend of Snowstang service, according to Timlin.
On Saturday’s A-Basin trip, the already-delayed driver turned onto U.S. 6 to take the Loveland pass to A-Basin. But he soon encountered a closed gate.
Avalanche risk and poor visibility closed the pass a day earlier, according to Bob Wilson, a CDOT spokesperson. The driver was supposed to take an alternate route, but was not aware of the change according to several passengers who worried after hearing the driver’s radio conversation with his dispatcher.
“It’s stressful to hear that conversation about how to get there,” said Sumit Mehta, a radiologist from Aurora who was on the bus.
Prior to turning onto U.S. 6, dispatchers from Ace Express, which operates the service for CDOT, were unable to reach the driver due to spotty communication signals in the mountains, according to Michele Martinson, a spokesperson for the bus operator.
“Dispatch was trying to give instructions but there were some difficulties,” she said. “They were trying to communicate with the driver, both by radio and cell phone, and the message didn’t get through.”
A new computerized dispatch system will soon add another mode of communication to the buses, according to CDOT. It will operate on the cell networks of both Sprint and T-Mobile, allowing text messages to come through to a screen on the driver’s dashboard when signals allow.
Another delay happened when the driver tried to turn the bus around. His attempt at a three-point turn failed and the bus got stuck in the snow in a parking lot at the Loveland ski area. A snow plow towed the bus. Then one of the resort’s drivers climbed into the bus and backed it onto U.S. 6.
“He’s clearly inexperienced at driving in the mountains,” said Mehta.
CDOT officials agreed.
All Bustang drivers are trained for winter driving conditions on a yearly basis. But Snowstang drivers get an additional level of training. Saturday’s driver was filling in for someone and had not received the extra training.
“The bus driver who departed Union Station was a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled driver,” said Wilson in a statement after the incident. “The new driver had not participated in CDOT-led preparations.”
A larger stable of backup drivers will receive training for Snowstang routes going forward, said Wilson. A different driver was assigned to the return trip.
Many of the passengers accepted the delays without fuss.
“It’s the first day,” said Mehta. “I understand there are going to be issues.”
Problems like those Saturday will be rare, according to CDOT officials. And they only affected one of the five Snowstang trips last weekend.
“You won the lottery Saturday,” said Timlin to the reporter who was on the trip. “It was unfortunate. The A-Basin trip was the one that had issues.”
As Colorado leaders fail to alleviate weekend traffic on Interstate 70 and Front Range air quality worsens, the service promises to take thousands of cars off the road.
“I want this to succeed,” said Mehta. “It’s more sustainable and it helps with I-70 traffic.”
Some visitors assumed that such a service already existed.
“I figured they would have something. I just Googled it,” said Anna Wimmer, 27, of Philadelphia, who often travels to ski. “I’m used to it in Europe. You just take a train or a bus.”
Wimmer met her friend Alex Bostrom, 26, of Salt Lake City, in Denver ahead of their trip. Bostrom says she prefers Snowstang’s luxury motor coaches and express service to the regular bus service the Utah Department of Transportation offers to ski resorts there.
“UDOT has park-and-rides, but it’s not very advanced,” she said. “This is a lot nicer than the UDOT buses.”
On the way down, a crash closed I-70 at Silverthorn. The Snowstang driver pulled the vehicle into the parking lot of a strip mall, which stopped the clock on a federally-mandated limit to the number of hours a bus driver can be on the road. It also gave passengers a chance to get off the bus and grab a bite to eat.
To compensate for the delays, Snowstang fully refunded passengers for tickets and offered a $15 voucher for a future trip. Ace Express provided $30 in gift cards to A-Basin.
One woman missed a group ski lesson due to the delay. Ace Express arranged a private lesson for her. There were few other complaints after the trip, according to Wilson, which may have been related to passengers’ apres-ski activities, and Colorado’s beer culture.
“With all the I.P.A.s and live music, we decided to have a few beers at the mountain,” said Wimmer. “When you’re at the mountain you want to meet people.”
But Snowstang’s route mixup could have been avoided if public transportation didn’t require roads.
“I think the only thing that would be better is train service,” said Wimmer.
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