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  • Dylan Anderson

Steamboat looks to expand late-night bus service this winter, but paying for it won’t be easy

Late night service was asked for ahead of last ski season, but at the time it was too late to make any changes.


The effort to hire bus drivers ahead of next winter is already underway, but knowing exactly how many are needed relies on what the routes will look like six months from now.


Ahead of last ski season, businesses and workers in downtown Steamboat Springs asked for the winter bus schedule to return to having late-night service, but it was too late to hire drivers to work those shifts. On Tuesday, City Council directed staff to move forward with that additional late-night service, though how that will be paid for amid steep transit cost increases remains to be seen.


“The money has to come from somewhere to pay for this,” said Council President Robin Crossan. “Where’s it coming from? ... I think that has to be foremost in this conversation.”


Council did not decide where money would come from Tuesday, rather that discussion would be saved for more detailed budget conversations that will come later in the year. Still, City Transit Manager Jonathan Flint said he anticipated having to reduce service by as much as 10% in next year’s budget based on increasing transit costs labor, fuel and parts unless given additional funding.


“Even with a 10% growth in the 2024 budget we are looking at some pretty significant reductions in service,” Flint said.


Steamboat Springs Transit hasn’t operated all of its lines since before the pandemic and Council didn’t give the okay to fully ramp back up winter service on Tuesday.


Council members favored expanding late-night bus options until 3 a.m., which would serve the bar crowd and service workers in the winter months, expanding the system’s mainline service later into the night to add more capacity to accommodate the dinner crowd and adding a bus to the regional line between Steamboat and Craig, which is setting new passenger records nearly every month.


Flint estimated the additional late night service will cost an additional $250,000 and extending the mainline service later will cost about $106,000. Each of those would only be during the winter bus schedule. Adding another regional bus would be more expensive, with about $650,000 to buy another bus and about $300,000 to operate it.


In public comment, Kim Haggarty and Pat Waters, who together own Schmiggity’s, stressed that there is often no option for their patrons or their staff to get home late at night. Occasionally, the bar’s staff has driven their own patrons home because the only other way would be to walk back to the mountain area.


“Our nightlife is amazing until you have to get home,” Haggarty said. “We really have to fix this problem. This isn’t about Schmiggity’s, it translates to every part, to our workers, to our tourists, every one of us.”


“There is no way to get home… there is nothing,” Haggarty continued.


Seann Conway, who owns several restaurants in Steamboat also pushed for the expanded bus service and suggested asking riders to pay for the service could be a way to fund it.


Charging for the bus isn’t as clear of a funding mechanism as it would seem though, Flint says. There would be steep upfront costs to add equipment to collect fares to buses, and because the department receives federal funding, trying to charge for only late-night routes could be complicated, he added.


Council member Dakotah McGinlay said she favored funding additional transit by introducing paid parking rather than charging for the bus, adding that they want to disincentivize driving, not disincentivize public transit.


Another significant barrier to adding service is having people to drive those additional buses, as Colorado as a whole is facing steep transit worker shortages. Flint said by the end of last season they were short as many as 10 seasonal bus drivers after losing some simply because of the stress of the job.


“Of the drivers that we lost, a lot of them was due to stress,” Flint said. “I’ve been reviewing videos of what a lot of our drivers are going through and I can’t blame them. A lot of very challenging situations and a lot of times where they were not being treated like I would like someone who has my life in my hands to be treated.”


Council member Heather Sloop suggested the city explore hiring a recruiter specifically to help hire bus drivers, a strategy she said seems to have paid off for the Steamboat Springs Police Department. This idea got support from other council members as well. Flint said he also planned to do some recruiting in Alaska again this summer, which he felt worked well to recruit bus drivers last year.


“I think we should do this now,” Sloop said.


Top Photo Caption: Steamboat Springs Transit would still need to reduce service levels even if the budget were increased by 10% in 2024 due to increased labor, fuel and parts costs. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)

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