Bustang expansion has CDOT aiming to “go big” to attract riders

Colorado’s Bustang system is set to roughly double service along Interstate 25 and more than triple service along Interstate 70 west of Denver under a three-year pilot expansion approved Thursday by the state Transportation Commission.

The regional bus system, launched by the Colorado Department of Transportation in 2015, was growing quickly before the pandemic. But now ridership patterns are in flux, and transportation officials hope the new investment of nearly $73 million into its main lines — to cover future funding gaps and add more service — will attract commuters, vacationers and other travelers by offering more convenient options.

“We’re attempting to go big,” said Amber Blake, the director of CDOT’s Transit and Rail Division, during a Wednesday commission briefing on the plan. “At the end of the day, (the pilot) will be able to prove the viability and the value to Colorado for our Bustang services.”

Bustang’s lines out of Denver’s Union Station — north to Fort Collins, south to Colorado Springs and west as far as Grand Junction — carried 15,208 riders in March, about 74% of the pre-pandemic total for the same month in 2019.

But the popular I-70 mountain line has more than recovered, with ridership in March running 36% ahead of March 2019. Along the more commuter-dependent I-25 corridor, the south route was still down nearly 62% in March, while the north route was down 55%, according to CDOT figures.

The pilot plan calls for expansions in three phases, with the first beginning in August:

  • Both I-25 routes: Each now offers six round trips on weekdays and two on weekends. Later this summer, each will add two more weekday round trips. Next year, plans call for each to have a total of 10 roundtrips on weekdays and four on weekends. In 2024, the routes will have 12-13 roundtrips on weekdays and six on weekends.
  • I-70 west route: Now offers four daily round trips, including on weekends, with two reaching Grand Junction, one ending at Glenwood Springs and one ending at Avon. Later this summer, it will add two more daily round trips to Grand Junction. Next year, plans call for a total of 9-10 daily roundtrips, all ending in Grand Junction. In 2024, the route will expand to 13-15 daily round trips.

Blake said CDOT would refine the plans for later phases based on how riders respond to the early service boosts. The plan’s price tag includes $11.3 million for the purchase of more buses, with the bulk of the money covering additional operating costs for Bustang’s private providers. The financial plan assumes fares will cover 30% of costs.

State lawmakers recently approved a bill that includes $30 million to help pay for the pilot. The rest is being covered by CDOT’s multimodal options fund, which supports transit and alternative mobility projects.

CDOT’s system also includes several Bustang Outrider routes that connect smaller cities and towns across the state. It’s added seasonal Snowstang service from Denver to ski resorts as well as a summer Bustang route to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park that resumes Memorial Day weekend.

The same weekend, CDOT will launch another I-70 mountain transit service called Pegasus that will operate 11-passenger vans between Denver and Avon. Aimed mostly at recreational riders, Pegasus will run roughly every hour in each direction from Fridays through Sundays, with some Thursday and Monday service.

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