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Free rides on Colorado Springs’ Mountain Metropolitan Transit buses were offered from June through August through the statewide Zero Fare for Better Air program. More than 350,000 rides were recorded in July, breaking the monthly record set in 2008. (Olivia Prentzel, The Colorado Sun)

The number of people riding buses across Colorado Springs surged this summer — breaking ridership records — as fares were waived for three months in an effort to ease air pollution when ozone levels are highest, public transit leaders said Thursday in downtown Colorado Springs.

In its second year participating in the statewide program, bus fare for the city’s transit agency Mountain Metropolitan Transit was waived from June through August. More than 350,000 boardings were recorded in July, breaking the monthly record set in 2008.

Thursday marked the end of the two-year statewide initiative, which under Senate Bill 180, allocated $28 million to let public transportation agencies across Colorado offer free train and bus trips during the hottest and smoggiest months in the year. 

This summer, 16 transit agencies participated in the Zero Fare for Better Air program — a slight jump from 14 last year and 10 expanded their free rides, offering zero fare for three months, instead of just in August. 

The program encouraged people to use public transit in all corners of the state. In southwestern Colorado, Archuleta County’s Mountain Express saw more than a 40% increase in ridership in June compared with May, said Ann Rajewski, executive director of advocacy group Colorado Association of Transit Agencies. Fountain Municipal Transit, offering service southeast of Colorado Springs, also saw a similar increase. 

It also allowed transit agencies to expand routes. In Vail, a new shuttle brought hikers to four popular trailheads for free; and in Estes Park, trolleys ran an extra two hours in the evenings to allow tourists to explore downtown without their cars. 

“I think this really helped move the conversation forward,” Rajewski said. “There’s really a national conversation about zero fare and whether that’s valuable or not.” 

One rider said she used the bus to bring her daughter to daycare before she rode it to work, Rajewski said, and another said she was able to take more frequent trips to visit her family without worrying about her budget. 

“This really gave, on top of the other benefits, people an opportunity to see what it would do to ridership, to see how valuable the community would find it,” Rajewski said. 

For the second year in a row, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, one of the largest transit agencies in the state, decided not to participate in the program due to a driver shortage. Last year, the agency that serves communities from Rifle to Aspen feared it wouldn’t be able to provide reliable service to a possible influx of passengers lured by free rides.

Recruiting and retaining an adequate number of drivers remains a challenge for RFTA, said Dan Blankenship, chief executive officer. A significant spike in ridership, above the current levels (which during peak hours is often standing room only) would be tough, he said.

“Because a totally free commuter service could result in a significant increase in ridership, which might result in less than convenient and comfortable service, RFTA prefers not to over promise and underdeliver to prospective new riders, who might be turned away and turned off,” Blankenship said in an email. 

This year, his agency worked with CASTA to waive fares from June through August in Basalt, he said, noting that a lot of RFTA’s regional commuter services already are free within a zone.

The environmental impacts of the zero-fare program remain unclear and the bill didn’t outline methods to track those, but transit leaders hope the high ridership numbers are harbingers of new habits that could bring cleaner air to cities across the state. Parts of the Front Range have failed to meet federal ozone standards for more than 20 years. 

“Statewide tailpipe emissions is a large source of pollution and for a lot of our communities right now, we’re either above or getting awfully close to that mark where we’re starting to see those ozone alert days … that it’s unhealthy air to be outside breathing,” said Danny Katz, executive director of Colorado Public Interest Research Group.

“Anything that we can do to make sure we’re not getting above those metrics, where we have the unhealthy air days, is really important,” he said. “Zero fare is a simple way to encourage more people to ride the bus.”

It’s also not clear how many people riding the bus the last three months were forgoing their personal vehicles. Additional polling will be conducted this year to better understand how many new riders opted for free public transportation, instead of their cars. 

There were no significant rises in safety issues as ridership numbers increased, Rajewski said. 

This summer, RTD offered free rides in July and August, including during one of the city’s busiest weekends, shuttling riders downtown to the Taylor Swift concerts and the Colorado Rockies games against the New York Yankees. On July 14 and 15, RTD’s vehicles ran at capacity for several hours and additional trains were added to meet the demand, the agency said in a news release Thursday. 

A bus leaves the RTD transit station at Eastlake & 124th in Thornton on Thursday, December 1, 2022. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The district saw a large increase in first-time riders, according to the release, but transit officials plan to further study commuting trends. A final report, which will include ridership numbers and survey data, will be released in the fall.

Starting Friday, RTD will waive fares for riders 19 years and younger for one year to focus on “welcoming a future generation of transit users” while driving down transportation costs for families. 

In Colorado Springs, where the population is expected to exceed Denver’s by 2050, accessible and reliable public transportation is vital, said Gayle Sturdivant, the city’s interim public works director. 

This summer, the city received a federal grant to add six electric-hybrid buses to its fleet, which will join four electric buses that are already in service, Sturdivant said. 

As driver shortages persist in the Roaring Fork Valley and many parts of the state, Mountain Metropolitan Transit reported having no driver shortages after switching to a new third party that has helped attract drivers.

“But our position now is much improved from where it was nine months ago,”she said. 

When the Colorado Department of Transportation cut fares in half for its Bustang buses last summer, the agency saw a 77% increase in ridership across all lines compared to the same time period the year before, Emily Haddaway, CDOT’s legislative liaison, said Thursday. The agency also expanded bus lines and increased the frequency of trips, including two more trips on the south line between Denver to Colorado Springs, she said, noting the economic benefits of connecting the two cities. 

Passengers load onto the Bustang on May 22, 2019 at the Park-n-Ride at the intersection of U.S 34 and Interstate 25 outside of Loveland. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bustang ticket prices will remain at half price on select routes through September. While the promotion is not tied to the Zero Fare program, higher ridership levels are a promising sign, Haddaway said. 

“It’s clear that increasing numbers of Coloradans across the state see the value in public transit,” Haddaway said. “They’re passionate about protecting their planet and happy to be saving their hard earned money they’d otherwise be spending on gas, parking and tolls.”

Ridership on Bustang buses saw a 36% increase this fiscal year, which ended in June, compared with last year on the south line, she said. While some of the increase can be attributed to numbers continuing to bounce back from the pandemic, Haddaway said she anticipates ridership to continue to grow.

Speaking to voters, state Rep. Stephanie Vigil, an El Paso County Democrat, said many residents asked for more transit options to get around town. 

“I’m of the belief that transportation is a basic necessity for everyone and that we can only have equitable opportunity for all residents if our transportation planning actually accounts for all of them,” said Vigil, who cosponsored the bill to expand the program. “Every budget, every ability, every lifestyle.”

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...