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Life is a highway but these neighbors hope for a new bus route to drive it

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A new petition garnering hundreds of signatures is asking for a new Bustang Outrider route from Salida/Buena Vista along Highway 24 (pictured above) to Colorado Springs.
Photo: Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS

BUENA VISTA, Colo. — On a snowy February day, U.S. 24 west of Colorado Springs is treacherous. Snow-covered and icy, the highway’s curves forced some drivers off the road, leaving empty cars waiting to be towed on the shoulder.  

Days like this are part of the reason why Adrienne Schwartz started a petition for a new public bus route with multiple stops along Highway 24 through Chaffee, Park and Teller counties. The highway serves as the connection for those living in the picturesque rural towns of western Colorado to the central corridor of the state. 

“[Riding the bus] would be much more enjoyable than white-knuckle driving on your car,” said Schwartz.  

Schwartz, a part-time resident of Buena Vista and long-time visitor, found the lack of transportation options getting from the Colorado Springs airport to Buena Vista more than just annoying. After years of casually but consistently sending social media messages to Bustang, the state’s public transportation network, she decided to take it further.  

“I figured, well, maybe there's a few people that would also need this route, but it turns out quite a few people in this area would really need this route,” she said. 

Buena Vista residents petition for new Bustang route

Video edited by Melanie Towler, Rocky Mountain PBS.

More than 700 people signed the petition since Schwartz posted it in December. Signers online mention their need to go to Colorado Springs often for health care, shopping and traveling to the Colorado Springs airport. Some also mentioned it would be good for tourists interested in coming to Chaffee County. 

The new proposed route is shown in red on this map that also includes the current Bustang lines.
Photo: Adrienne Schwartz

By their own account, in 2023 the Bustang Outrider, which is the popular route from Crested Butte to Denver and has stops in Salida and Buena Vista, saw 17,534 riders. That number is nine times greater than the average number of riders for the other rural bus routes, except for the second most popular route which is Craig to Denver at 11,430 riders.  

“For rural routes it really is pretty impressive,” said Jeffrey Prillwitz, program manager for Bustang Outrider, the name for the Colorado Department of Transportation’s rural bus routes.  

Data provided by the Colorado Department of Transportation shows the ridership numbers for all Bustang Outrider rural routes in 2023. The Crested Butte to Denver route is by far the most popular.
Graphic: Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS

Prillwitz, a self-described “transit geek," said his 2004 Chevy Pickup hasn’t hit 100,000 miles yet because of his frequent use of public transportation. He lives in Aurora and uses RTD regularly to go to his office in downtown Denver. After coming out of retirement to manage Bustang Outrider in 2017, he said ridership has dramatically increased.  

“We just can't keep up with demand right now,” said Prillwitz.  

Bustang saw an average 20% increase in ridership from 2022 to 2023 for its main routes along I-25 from Fort Collins to Denver and Colorado Springs and west along I-70.  

Prillwitz said Bustang plans to add another bus to the Crested Butte to Denver route by the summer of 2024.  

Currently, Buena Vista residents, like Bonnie Davis, say when the bus headed to Denver arrives in town, it's often full and unable to take more passengers. Last year, 4,903 people boarded that route in Salida or Buena Vista alone, with a monthly average of 277 boarding in Salida and 130 boarding in Buena Vista. 

Data and route information provided by Colorado Department of Transportation shows the busiest stops along the current route from Crested Butte to Denver.
Graphic: Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS

“There's so many people that do take the bus, all range of population,” said Davis. “Some just like me or just don't want to drive, there's people that commute, there's people with disabilities.”  

After a 30-year career as a data scientist with FedEx and living in Buena Vista for eight years, Davis thinks a lot about transportation.  

She serves on the transportation advisory board for the county and said the status of Bustang, its routes and the impact on the community, is talked about at every meeting. Davis wants this route to more easily connect her to benefits in Colorado Springs such as health care, shopping and access to the Colorado Springs airport.  

“People that live here in this community, we have resources, but it's limited,” said Davis.  

She compares living in a rural town to living on an island where all goods and resources must be trucked in and aren’t as wide-ranging as the ones available in Colorado Springs.  

Bonnie Davis is a Buena Vista resident who makes the 95-mile trip to Colorado on average twice a month. She hopes a new Bustang route will give her a better travel option. Photo: Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS

Without a bus service, Davis often carpools for her twice-a-month trip to the city. "I'll call around to say, ‘Hey, do you want to go to Colorado Springs?’ So that it's not just me in the car and I'm taking someone along with us,” she said.  

She said other people looking to carpool post in a Buena Vista Facebook group. Usually, neighbors will join for a ride for one reason or another, including specific health care needs. 

“We have a fairly large former military community here, retirees and veterans and sometimes Veterans Administration tests and diagnostic requirements and other things require you to go to Colorado Springs,” said Keith Baker, a Navy veteran and Chaffee County commissioner.  

About 6% of Chaffee County’s 20,000 residents are veterans while 26% are 65 or older, according to the latest census data. An elected official representing the county since 2017, Baker knows “transportation is vital infrastructure” for his constituents.  

“When people are telling you something is a good idea, it's a good policy to listen and so in that case, that's why I'm really on board with this, not only because it skews to my natural inclinations, but it's also something that could benefit our residents and our people,” said Baker.  

Keith Baker, Chaffee County district one commissioner, plans to advocate for the proposed bus route along Highway 24.
Photo: Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS

As a commissioner passionate about transit and sustainability, he also sits on the San Luis Valley Transportation Planning Commission and is a member of the Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee. He hopes to use his position to help advocate for this new route.  

“I think it would help us to cement our relationships with Colorado Springs in addition to Denver and the Front Range, and it gives us a diversity of pathways in and out of Chaffee County,” said Baker.  

A Bustang ticket for the route to Denver from Buena Vista costs $24 one-way, but it’s $12 for children under 11 and for adults 65 and older.  

Using the Internal Revenue Service’s 2024 standard mileage rate, which takes into account the overall cost of operating a car, not just gas, it costs $83.75 for the 125-mile, one-way trek from Buena Vista to Denver. The 95 miles from Buena Vista to Colorado Springs costs around $63.65 one-way using the standard mileage rate.  

If driving a personal car or carpooling isn’t an option, the trip can be even more costly.  

“The times that I have had to take an Uber or a taxi, it's very expensive,” said Schwartz.  

“I think it was over $250. And there's only, I want to say, maybe two taxi or Uber drivers here in town. So, it's very limited to have other options to get into Colorado Springs,” she said.  

Where did the name 'Bustang' come from?

We asked Jeffrey Prillwitz, program manager for Bustang Outrider, where the name of CDOT's bus system came from and this is what he told us. 
"I wasn't here when they came up with the names, but from what I'm told... One of our marketing consultants because we use a lot of consultants for stuff that we don't have within CDOT like the marketing and that. For this, [they] came up with like a whole big long list and somehow Bustang just really rang, and then when they started to go to the rural part of it, they added Outrider, because it’s kind of like the outback of Colorado or something like that. But calling it the Outback, if we did, they might think it's a bus to a steakhouse." 

Adrienne Schwartz started a petition to get attention from decision-makers and to demonstrate the need for a new public bus route along Highway 24 west of Colorado Springs.
Photo: Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS

Aside from the lower cost and need for a bus route, Schwartz, Baker, and Davis all mentioned a strong desire to cut down on the number of cars on the road. They each want to protect the environment that makes living in Chaffee County such a benefit to them.  

“I like access to forests and fields and mountains and streams and all those different things,” said Baker. 

“So, those are among the things that I really value, and that's one reason among the many reasons I'd like to preserve the environment. I think that a robust public transportation system and more transportation options. I think benefits the environment as well as individuals' pocketbooks.” 

The process to implement a new Bustang route could take a couple of years.  

Prillwitz said some money for the Outrider routes comes from the state’s FASTER funds but the majority of the budget comes from federal funding specific to increasing rural transit.  

The hardest qualification to meet is finding American-manufactured buses, a stipulation for receiving federal money outlined in the Transit Manager’s Toolkit for the Rural Transit Assistance Program 

Prillwitz spoke with Schwartz frankly about the process and told her it could take years. Still, she is organized and determined to help bring this service to rural Chaffee County.  

“I think in a small community it's hard to get the attention that some of the bigger cities have. There's lots of transportation options in Denver, lots of transportation options out I-70,” she said, “I'm willing to be a squeaky wheel to get things to get things moving.” 

Amanda Horvath is the managing producer at Rocky Mountain PBS.

Melanie Towler is the video editor at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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