Folks are hopping on the bus more and more these days to get to places in the Wood River Valley, as Mountain Rides Transportation Authority eyes the possibility of setting a new all-time ridership record in 2011.
Operations Manager Jim Finch reported at Wednesday's meeting of the Mountain Rides board of directors that the organization already set a new record this year for ridership in November, topping the month's total in 2010 by almost 15 percent and even beating a previous November record that goes all the way back to 1994.
"It's been a great year," Finch said. "The present holiday crowd is a little lighter than usual, but we're expecting 1,000 guests at the resort this week. All we need is a little snow and we'll have all the visitors we need."
While December ridership is still to be determined, Finch is hoping for 64,350 riders for the month. If that number is achieved, it would give Mountain Rides a total 2011 ridership of 495,784, surpassing the previous record high of 495,783 set in 1994, a year when skier numbers were particularly high in the Sun Valley area.
If current trends continue through the end of December, Mountain Rides could come close or even surpass the old record. December is one of Mountain Rides' busiest months, recording a total of 55,383 passengers in December 2010.
Finch reported that ridership was up in November 2011 over the previous year on all four of the organization's main commuter services.
The Ketchum-Sun Valley area free bus service system recorded a 41 percent ridership increase over November 2010, while the fledging Hailey Circulator system, which provides free bus service around that town, recorded an increase of 79 percent over last year.
The Valley route, a paid fare service that shuttles passengers between the Ketchum-Sun Valley and Hailey-Bellevue areas, recorded an increase in November of 14 percent compared to November 2010.
Even the Mountain Rides commuter van service, which shuttles workers between the Magic and Wood River valleys and had been in decline during the past few years because of the recession, showed an increase in ridership in November of this year of 17 percent compared to 2010.
"Get out and ride the bus," Finch said at the meeting, noting that the more times passengers get on and off, the higher the total will go.
In order to meet the growing ridership demand, Mountain Rides is eyeing the possibility of establishing a transit center hub in Ketchum to facilitate passenger boarding and de-boarding in the city. Currently, though not officially a hub, the primary passenger transit area in Ketchum is on either side of Main Street between Fourth and Fifth streets, with northbound passengers getting on or off buses on the east side of Main Street in front of Sturtevants and southbound passengers getting on or off buses on the west side of Main Street in front of Wells Fargo Bank.
According to a Mountain Rides' report, a new transit center would provide greater safety and ease of use for passengers and would make the area more competitive with other resort areas that typically have transit hubs for their bus systems.
The board of directors unanimously approved awarding a $12,370 contract to LSC Transportation Consultants, headquartered in Tahoe City, Calif., to develop a conceptual plan for establishing a transit center.
The contract is still subject to city of Ketchum approval since the city and Mountain Rides are partnering in the endeavor, with each entity chipping in 50 percent for the study.
Mountain Rides Executive Director Jason Miller said funding for the transit center would come from a $200,000 grant that has already been awarded to Mountain Rides from the U.S. Department of Transportation for development of a "Downtown Ketchum Intermodal Center."
Happy New Year
In other business, the board approved providing early-morning bus service for folks who party in downtown Ketchum on New Year's Eve and aren't in a condition to be driving. The vote was unanimous, though board member Susan McBryant, representing the city of Hailey, said she was concerned that Mountain Rides was paying for the whole service.
McBryant noted that the Ketchum Police Department, the Blaine County Sheriff's Office, Sun Valley Co. and the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance/Chamber were supportive of the service but that none of them had kicked in any money to fund it.
Miller said the services will cost between $700 and $800 and acknowledged that he hadn't ask for funding, noting in particular that the city of Ketchum is a major funding partner for Mountain Rides and that he didn't want to "nickel and dime" the Ketchum Police Department.
"I think this is a little bit of abuse of our system," McBryant said.
According to the plan, Mountain Rides Silver and Blue routes will provide service to the downtown area until 2:30 a.m.
"I sure wouldn't want to be the bus driver stuck with that at 2:30," McBryant said.
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org