Durango Lift prepares for the long haul
Local officials getting on board with transit solutions

If there’s one thing nearly everyone agrees on, it’s that the car is currently king in Durango. For many local residents, the Durango Lift has nothing to do with the ideals of preventing congestion and pollution, but is a system dedicated to serving

A lone passenger rides the Main Avenue Trolley on Monday. The Durango Lift, which operates the trolley, has been providing local transportation service since 1983, but the system is now facing a two-fold dilemma – increased growth in the face of decreased funding.

people who can’t afford automobiles. However, given the current steady growth in traffic and unprecedented development on the horizon, new energy is going into transportation alternatives and, specifically, public transit.

Ted Holteen kicked down 50 cents and rode the Durango Lift’s trolley from his home on 29th Street to his job in the Town Plaza on Tuesday. He says he regularly rides the bus and has for years. When asked specifically why he rode Tuesday, he responds, “My car is broken down at the moment, and when I can’t borrow my roommate’s, I ride the trolley.”

Vince Haffey also has been riding the trolley and the Durango Lift regularly, and, like Holteen, he does it out of necessity. For the last six years, he’s ridden the system every day to everywhere from the bowling alley at the Durango Mall to relatives’ homes. He says he likes the frequency and friendliness of the system but quickly admits that he rides only because he can’t afford a car.

Holteen notes that in his mind the trolley caters to an unusual Durango subculture. “It’s always a nice little freakshow,” he says. “It’s entertaining as well as economic and efficient.”

A car town

Jan Choti is the transit manager for the Durango Lift, the umbrella organization for the Main Avenue trolley, which charges 50 cents; the Opportunity Bus, which serves people with disabilities; and the Durango Lift, which runs several loops around Durango and charges $1 per ride.

Choti is the first to admit that Durango is literally driven by automobiles. “Durango is absolutely a car town,” she says. “It would take something drastic to change that.”

However, Choti stands by cutting down on congestion and pollution and has hope for Durangoans in spite of their love for vehicles. “I would like to see everyone make a commitment to, one day a week, leaving their car at home,” she says. “I’m not asking them to change their lifestyle or sell their cars.”

Choti notes that last year, the Durango Lift provided more than 200,000 rides, and many of those were given to repeat riders like Haffey and Holteen. While the number of trips last year seems impressive, she adds that public transit has not always been on the top of people’s lists in Durango, particularly when it comes to funding it. “Here, it’s been an uphill fight to get people to realize that transit is very expensive, and it needs to be subsidized,” Choti says.

She adds that the Durango Lift is under-appreciated and that few communities Durango’s size have such sophisticated bus systems. “I wish that the people would recognize how advanced the system is,” she says. “We provide a level of service that doesn’t exist in other communities of 15,000 people.”

An uncomfortable twist

The Durango Lift has been operating since 1983, but the system is now facing a significant dilemma – increased growth pressure in the wake of decreased funding. Greg Hoch, Durango planning director, notes that the combined forces of the proposed Grandview, Ewing Mesa and Kroeger Ranch developments could make for 4,800 new Durango homes and twice that many new cars. As planners eye this proposition, their single, biggest concern is transportation.

“I think transportation and street capacities are going to be the most challenging element in this city and county’s ability to respond to growth challenges,” says Hoch.

Part of the reason transportation will be such a challenge is the State of Colorado’s recent failure to allocate resources locally, according to Hoch. Consequently, city, county and state officials are trying to get creative on the behalf of Durango.

“I think what’s going on locally is that there’s a recognition on the part of elected city, county and state officials and staff that everybody has to come together and agree on a solution and lobby for that solution at the state level,” he says.
On the local level, Hoch says the city has recently begun to look at new approaches to transportation and public transit. “Since 1983, the bus system has reacted to development,” he says. “Now we’re trying to make it more proactive, where we design the new development to accommodate transit services. We are moving in a direction to incorporate transit planning in all of our project-review planning.”

Features like bus stop locations and shelters will be addressed as well as a possible regional transfer station.

“It’s a very recent development that transit will be included in some of the early phases of planning these developments, and it’s time” says Choti. “These are simple little amenities that we don’t have yet.”

Choti says one of the most important places to consider in terms of future transportation is downtown Durango. “I think we need to look at the downtown area and decide if we’re really getting around there in the best possible way,” she says.
To that end, the city and the Durango Lift are looking into the feasibility of a park-and-ride system, where people would park in areas like the Eight Corners intersection in Bayfield, Elmore’s Corner and Durango West and ride a bus into town. Choti adds that she would like to see the frequency of the trolley increased from every 20 minutes to every 10 minutes. She also would like to work toward a goal of regional transit for commuters from Dolores, Cortez and Ignacio. She says that while these are all long-term fixes, some should come about sooner than others, and the planning must begin immediately.

“You have to start planning for it now because lands going, and going quickly,” she says.

However, the biggest difficulty is funding, particularly after a summer in which sales tax revenues, the city’s principle funding mechanism, plummeted. “These are all things that cost money,” says Choti. “”We’re all doing the best we can to use the money we have wisely.”

Two other perspectives


A Durango Lift passenger runs to make his bus Monday morning on Main Avenue. The Durango Lift provided more than 200,000 trips last year, and city officials are looking at ways to increase ridership.

Funding dilemmas are not unique to La Plata County’s public transportation. In Grand Junction, Grand Valley Transit deals with a similar funding structure and a similar desire to expand. “It would be nice to have more funding to accommodate more people in the town,” says Roger Ford, the system’s chief operating officer.
Grand Valley transit, which charges 50 cents a ride, did more than 570,000 trips last year, representing a “pretty good cross-section” of the Grand Junction community. However, Ford says that the driving force behind this number was a negative one. “The traffic situation is becoming fairly horrendous here,” he says. “Naturally, at a point, the number of cars and the amount of pollution become deterrents to driving your car.”

East of Grand Junction, a much smaller community hosted a similar volume of bus traffic last year. Crested Butte’s Mountain Express did more than 500,000 trips last year, in spite of serving only 2,500 year-round residents. Although many of the riders were tourists, the local community is committed to riding the bus. Mountain Express Manager Scott Truex cites simplicity as the leading reason for success.
“I think the secret to our success in the simplicity of our routes and the short distances we go,” he says. “We’re carrying large numbers of people about three miles.”

Truex adds that the Mountain Express also has a flexible source of funding. Sales tax revenues are only one component of funding the system, which also draws money from a lift-ticket tax. On election days, voters also approved a Regional Transit Authority, which will derive additional tax revenues. Although the primary purpose of the RTA is guaranteeing airline seats, leftover money will be allocated to ground transportation.

Wait and see

While La Plata County has yet to explore funding mechanisms outside sales tax revenues, Choti is hopeful that the economy will bounce back, and the Durango Lift will be able to address growing needs.

“There’s no doubt that public transit can be a solution to a lot of problems, but we’re in a literal spending freeze,” concludes Choti. “It’s a dilemma, and we’re having to take a wait-and-see approach.”




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