Commentary: Yes, There Is A Bus To The Mountains

Photo people board Bustang at Denver Union Station - credit Jerry Tinianow
Passengers board a Bustang at Denver Union Station in January 2020. Photo: Jerry Tinianow
Photo Jerry Tinianow head shot
Jerry Tinianow was the City and County of Denver’s first Chief Sustainability Officer.

This guest commentary is by Jerry Tinianow, the Proprietor of Western Urban Sustainability Advisors, LLC, a consultancy. Jerry was Denver’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, serving from 2012 to 2019. He posts on LinkedIn and Facebook.

“You see, Jerry, people in Denver will want cars no matter where they live. They love going to the mountains, and there is no public transit to the mountains.”

So said a neighbor last fall during a friendly discussion of mobility issues in Denver’s Broadway/Lincoln area. She was complaining that the residents of the massive multifamily housing project being built on the old Gates Rubber factory site on South Broadway would bring hundreds of new cars to the neighborhood. I had mentioned that the whole point of transit-oriented development was that people living in such areas wouldn’t need cars. She said they would still bring cars.

My neighbor’s response reflects a common myth in Denver: that you need a car to get to the mountains, because there are no viable public transit options.

This truly is a myth. Amtrak runs a train to and from Glenwood Springs every day; from there, a visitor can catch a cheap Roaring Fork Transit Authority bus to Snowmass and Aspen. There is also a “snow train” that runs on Saturdays and Sundays between Denver and Winter Park. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) recently introduced winter bus service up to Arapahoe Basin.

The myth of no transit to the mountains, however, persists. I knew there were other options. To prove it, I recently did a trip from Denver to Mount Crested Butte without ever stepping into a car. It was easy, cheap, and fun.

I had been asked to facilitate a mid-January climate change conference in Gunnison. I had a place to stay near the Mount Crested Butte ski area, but I needed to get from Denver to Mount Crested Butte for my lodging. I would later need to get down to Gunnison for the conference, and then back to Denver. All without a car.

I started my trip by walking from my house to the Louisiana-Pearl RTD station, where I caught a light rail train to Union Station. From there, I took CDOT’s Bustang to Gunnison. Once in Gunnison, I caught the Gunnison Valley RTA bus up the valley to Mt. Crested Butte. Two days later, I took RTA back down the valley to my conference site at Western Colorado University in Gunnison.

Bustang runs daily between Denver and Gunnison, with stops at Pine Junction, Fairplay, Buena Vista, Salida, and — in the winter — the Monarch ski resort. It leaves Denver at 1:55 p.m. from Denver Union Station and is scheduled to arrive in Gunnison five hours later. The return trip departs at 6:05 a.m. The round-trip fare is $80. The RTA bus between Gunnison and Mt. Crested Butte – a 62-mile round trip – is free. Free shuttles also run every 15 minutes for the three-mile trip between Mt. Crested Butte and the town of Crested Butte.

The Bustang arrives and departs in Gunnison from the Econo Lodge on U.S. 50, about four blocks from the center of town. A stop for the bus to Mt. Crested Butte is just across Route 50. The connections are pretty seamless.

The Bustang is roomy and comfortable. Every seat has access to an electric outlet. On the bus, there is a restroom with a toilet (but no sink, just hand sanitizer).

Photo Bustang interior with passengers, seats, overhead storage rack - credit Jerry Tinianow Photo backpack on a Bustang seat - credit Jerry Tinianow

Luggage is stored in compartments at the bottom of the bus. There are also overhead racks inside the bus for smaller items.

Photo Bustang luggage compartment filled with suitcases - credit Jerry Tinianow

Technically, the bus offers wireless internet. I was able to connect easily to the on-board router, but the bus itself wasn’t getting an internet signal for most of the trip, so I was essentially connecting to a useless empty network. I wouldn’t have done any better in a car, however, and if I was driving, I couldn’t use the internet even if I had a connection. So, nothing lost there.

I had the same driver both ways. He had spent most of his lengthy career driving tractor trailers. He really knew how to handle a vehicle the size of the Bustang. With him at the wheel, we passengers rode along with a tremendous view of the scenery. We could work, read, nap or socialize – a much better experience than driving. We arrived 30 minutes early in Gunnison.

Because the return trip to Denver leaves so early, I stayed at the Econo Lodge the night before my departure. What can I say? It’s an Econo Lodge: functional but not fancy. I slept well, if not exactly in the lap of luxury.

The Econo Lodge is an easy walk to downtown Gunnison, where there are plenty of restaurants and stores. The hotel has a free breakfast which officially opens at 6:00 a.m., too close to the departure time to get a meal. The check-in clerk, however, had advised me that the dining room often opened earlier. The morning I went back to Denver, it opened at 5:15 a.m.

Denver is about 230 miles from Crested Butte. Using the 2020 IRS mileage reimbursement rate of 57.5 cents per mile, the cost of driving roundtrip is about $265. My cost for light rail, the Bustang, the free buses and one night at the Econo Lodge came to about $165. I saved $100 by taking the bus instead of driving. Of course, I was traveling alone. A family of four would spend more like $430 to ride transit. Consider the extra cost to be the price of showing your kids that there are ways to get around Colorado that are fun and don’t require a car. The bus is also a lot less cramped than even the roomiest minivan.

I admit that just telling this story isn’t going to cause a lot of people in Denver to give up their cars. I do hope, however, that I can puncture at least one of the myths that Denverites recite when they explain why they “have to own a car.” There are alternatives. We need more of them, but let’s not act as if we have none.

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