Friday, January 2, 2009

Mountain Rides expands valley services

Public bus service to Magic Valley becomes the next possibility

Express Staff Writer

Mountain Rides Executive Director Jason Miller is pleased with expansion of the bus and van services in 2008 for the Wood River Valley, but has big things in mind for the future, including public bus transportation between the Wood River and Magic valleys.

     The year 2008 was a big one for Mountain Rides Transportation Authority, as the fledgling agency greatly expanded its commuter bus and van services for the WoodRiverValley.

     The free Around Town bus service in the Ketchum-Sun Valley area jumped from two to six routes and now dips south to St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center and beyond. Increased bus trips are now offered for the DownValley service that links the Ketchum-SunValley area with Hailey and Bellevue, while the commuter van service to the MagicValley doubled its capacity.

     On the horizon is the possibility of public bus service between the WoodRiver and Magic valleys. Also, bus patrons will be treated to 12 new shelters in 2009 and work continues to link bus and van service to biking and walking pathways.

     “It’s been a huge year when you look at the growth we’ve had in our programs,” said Mountain Rides Executive Director Jason Miller. “But there’s still a lot to do and that’s what keeps it exciting.”

     Mountain Rides became an official not-for-profit agency in August 2007 when the old KART and PEAK bus systems were consolidated with Wood River Ride Share. The agency’s fiscal 2009 budget is about $2.3 million, provided by BlaineCounty and local municipalities, federal grants, rider fares and Sun Valley Co.

     Mountain Rides unveiled its new Around Town schedule on Thanksgiving Day. Where there were only two routes in the past—one permanent and one seasonal—Around Town bus service now has six—with three of them permanent and the other three added during peak tourist seasons. The three seasonal routes kicked in this year on Dec. 15.

     The enhanced service schedule was made possible mainly by a new agreement with Sun Valley Co. to provide Mountain Rides buses to replace the old yellow skier bus service and by a contract with the city of Sun Valley for increased bus service between the Elkhorn area and Sun ValleyVillage.

     Sun Valley Co. pitched in $160,000 to the Mountain Rides budget, while the city of Sun Valley chipped in $151,990 for the purchase of two 15-person buses exclusively for Sun Valley travelers.

     The service previously ran no farther than Elkhorn Road, but now extends south past the hospital all the way to The Meadows mobile home park.

     New trips were added for the DownValley service, including one that leaves Ketchum at around 9 p.m.

     Miller said ridership on the DownValley service nearly doubled this year, compared to last year, and remains high even with lower gasoline prices. In November, ridership was 24 percent higher than the previous year, he said.

     Mountain Rides now has eight vans, twice as many as last year, running on work days between the WoodRiver and Magic valleys. Miller said the popularity of the van service highlights the need for public transportation between the two valleys.

     “The highway corridor down to Twin is a big gap, and we’ve got to find something to provide that service,” Miller said. “We really need to get to where we have a couple of bus departures a day. The initial focus would be for commuters, but I would think that we’d see it for a number of different uses.”

     Closer to home, Jason said a federal grant allowed purchase of 12 new bus stop shelters that are now being stored in kit form and are awaiting spring and summer for installation.

     “Come spring, that’s going to be a big push to get those up,” he said. “We’ve already got the kits, so now it’s just up to the cities to help us get those installed.”

     Four new shelters were built in 2008, two near the YMCA in Ketchum, one at the Park-and-Ride lot in Hailey and the other in ElkhornVillage.

     Mountain Rides also continues to link its bus and van services with bicycle and walking corridors. New “Safe Routes to School” pathways were completed this year in Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue.

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