About 60 percent of all Teller County and 40 percent of Woodland Park residents commute to Colorado Springs to work each week — and a few of them take the Ute Pass Express to and from downtown Colorado Springs.
The two-way commuter service makes stops in Green Mountain Falls and Manitou Springs and downtown Colorado Springs before swinging by the last stop at Interstate 25 and South Tejon Street.
Twice a week David Kosley, a Colorado Springs School teacher, boards the bus at 5:45 a.m. at the third stop on the route in Green Mountain Falls, arrives at the downtown Colorado Springs terminal by 6:15 a.m. and catches another bus to the Broadmoor Hotel. He then walks about four blocks to the school, arriving about an hour after he left home.
“What I like best about it is that I can read, doze or just enjoy the scenery down the Pass. I buy 40 rides at a time so the cost is $3 each way instead of a full fare which is $4. The cost is actually about the same as driving when you look at gas prices and wear-and-tear on the car.”
Ridership statistics since November 2008, when the program started, are less than projected, although proponents believe more people will decide to take the bus once they learn more about its convenience and reasonable cost.
A July 2008 feasibility study done to support a two-year federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant application submitted by Mountain Metropolitan Transit for Ute Pass transit service estimated 60 to 110 boardings (one-way trips) annually. It also estimated about 20,000 trips per year.
After the first six months, the Ute Pass Express averaged only about 50 boardings per day — the majority traveling between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Ninety-two percent of travel was completed between noon and 8 p.m. based on results presented to city officials by LSC Transportation Consultants.
Kosley said most often he’s one of two people who board in Green Mountain Falls. A few others jump on in Cascade or Manitou Springs before heading to the downtown terminal and on to South Tejon.
His wife, Beth, is executive director of Woodland Park’s Downtown Development Authority, and formerly served as the executive director for the Downtown Partnership in Colorado Springs.
As an economic developer, she is a proponent of a vital central business district — and the Ute Pass Express could be an asset, she said, but it’s still unfamiliar to many who would use it.
Merry Jo Larsen, owner of The Cowhand, a landmark Woodland Park business, recalls two women riding up for the day and stopping at her store.
“They had a great time, and I recommended three or four restaurants within easy walking distance. But I haven’t seen them since,” she said, adding that as a member of the Woodland Retail Alliance, she hoped the some marketing programs and coupon promotions could be developed for Ute Pass Express clients.
Likewise, Beth Kosley believes the Express would be more successful if it marketed itself and the features of its destination stops more aggressively.
“In addition to being a benefit for commuters when it first started, it was a novelty,” she said. “We had several groups ride it to Woodland Park, some Red Hat Society ladies and others. Our city staff and town council rode to see what it was like. But since this spring, I don’t think a lot of people have used it to come up.”
Kosley would like to see the service continue after the grant ends.
“We need that alternative,” she said. “But there’s a lot to overcome — and two years is a relatively short time to build ridership. My hope is that they’ll do more marketing. They could do some cross-promotions with Manitou Springs or Colorado Springs or just advertise it more.”
Comparing the Ute Pass Express with Colorado Springs and the Downtown Partnership’s downtown area shuttle service or DASH, Kosley sees some common hurdles that must be addressed before ridership and revenue reach projected levels.
“Chris Leinberger from the Brookings Institute did a presentation (for the Downtown Partnership) on the research he’d done on fixed commuter rail and economic revitalization,” she said. “Rail is proven to be a great economic development tool because it’s predictable. When you build electric lines overhead or rails in the ground and they’re permanent — and that spurs development, residential growth. But you have to be predictable.”
She said the Ute Pass Express might need to develop a more permanent schedule in order to build a loyal clientele.
Bill Botini, Mountain Metropolitan Transit’s project manager, has been involved with the program from day one. Based on the LSC study and passenger feedback, an October marketing campaign will kick-off to bolster awareness about the bus routes by offering a 31-day unlimited ride pass for $99 and by adding more — as well as earlier and later — routes.
A route to Divide also is being considered, which would provide service for commuters from communities like Lake George or Cripple Creek.
“We’re considering extending our service based on what our riders want,” Botini said. “By buying one of our multi-ride 20-, 30-, or 40- time passes along with the new 31-day pass, for example, they’ll be able to transfer to fixed-route buses at the downtown terminal for free.”
While he admitted the program has some building to do before CDOT and federal transit department funders will consider a one-year extension of the service, it is possible, he said. Since FREX ridership began during October 2004, its revenue has grown to cover an impressive 42 percent of costs.
Those responding to an online survey conducted by LSC about what they might change to improve the service said the cost “was not cheap,” and that key connections to other parts of Colorado Springs such as college campuses and work sites were not available. Others suggested organizing senior group trips or adding more times to the current service.
For now, David Kosley said he’s generally pleased with the service and hopes it will continue, but with some tweaks.
“It would be great if they had a later bus back up the Pass in the evening. Right now the last one … leaves the South Tejon stop at about 6:50 (p.m.),” he said. “Mountain Metro doesn’t operate any transit on the weekend, but it would be great if they did. You could actually backpack down to Manitou from Green Mountain Falls or up to Woodland Park and take the bus back — I think people would use it for pleasure as well as for work.”