Being the centimillionaire chief executive of the state of Colorado has its perks. But during ski season, Governor Jared Polis can find himself stuck in Interstate 70 gridlock like everyone else.
“Last year, our family went skiing in Vail, and it took us about six hours to get back on a Sunday night,” Polis told a small crowd outside Union Station today, December 4. “We want to offer a solution to that. There’s a better way.”
Part of that solution, Polis and Colorado Department of Transportation Director Shoshana Lew said, is “Snowstang,” CDOT’s name for the three new bus routes it’s adding to its popular Bustang service that will ferry passengers between Denver and three mountain ski resorts this winter. Four years after launching, Bustang, which now offers intercity bus service on eight different routes across the state, continues to grow rapidly, with ridership up 23 percent between 2018 and 2019.
“We’ve been blown away by the success of Bustang,” Lew says. “It shows us that there’s a lot of pent-up demand. We see mountain travel as an obvious place to expand service, because so many people do it, and the drive is frustrating for everyone.”
Beginning December 14 and running through April 20, 2020, Snowstang service will take passengers to Arapahoe Basin, Loveland Ski Area and Steamboat Springs on Saturdays and Sundays, along with Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day. It’s a welcome change for the participating resorts, which each chipped in about $40,000 to partially cover the costs of the new service.
“Our biggest challenge at A-Basin for the last several years has been parking,” said CEO Alan Henceroth. “Anything we can do to get fewer cars on the road, fewer cars in the parking lot, that’s a wonderful thing for us.”
CDOT officials say they’ve discussed Snowstang with other resorts, and hope to expand the service in the future. Industry representatives hope that buses and other options could mark a turning point as resorts seek to address growing frustration from skiers and snowboarders about I-70 congestion, parking shortages and more.
“Anecdotally, based on what we hear, there is quite a bit of interest in having another option, and this is a great one,” says Melanie Mills, president of Colorado Ski Country USA. “Resorts are watching this very carefully.”
Snowstang’s launch is part of a broader trend toward expanding multimodal transportation in rural areas, bringing bus service and other forms of public transit to Colorado’s mountain resorts. The Winter Park Express, an Amtrak route between Union Station and the Grand County resort, will expand service in 2020 after selling a record 19,200 tickets last season. This week, officials from CDOT and the Federal Transit Administration announced $18 million in federal grants aimed at expanding rural bus service across the state, the bulk of which will be invested in the Lift, the four-year-old transit system that serves Winter Park and Fraser.
Lew notes that while many resort towns offer local bus and shuttle service, making car trips unnecessary once visitors are in town, getting to those resorts has been a different story.
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“There haven’t been a lot of options in the past,” she says. “What we’re hoping to do here is offer a new, comfortable, convenient way to get to the mountains."
“It’s obviously not the complete solution,” Polis said of Snowstang Wednesday. “There are a lot of other things we’re working on.” Those include a new westbound toll lane under construction between Idaho Springs and Empire, which is set to open in 2021, joining the eastbound toll lane along the same stretch.
Snowstang tickets are available on CDOT's Bustang website. For now, the service will make just one round trip per day to each resort on weekends, but there's a chance that could change if demand exceeds capacity.
“We would love to see this sold out so fast that we have to answer that question quickly," Lew says. "It would be a really good problem to have, to see these overflowing so that we have to rethink whether it's enough service."