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Expanded route in area’s future?

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Riders board a Road Runner Transit bus for Ignacio at the Durango Transit Center. Road Runner is looking into the feasibility of offering service to Grand Junction, which many social-service providers say would be especially helpful to La Plata County residents who are struggling financially.

By Heather Scofield Herald staff writer

The loss of long-distance bus service in Durango left some people stranded and has prevented some from accessing medical services. But that could change if a proposal by Road Runner Transit to add daily service between Durango and Grand Junction is successful.

The possibility brought a smile to the face of Audrey Werner, client services coordinator for Manna Soup Kitchen.

“That would be so wonderful,” Werner said.

Service could begin next spring if a needed grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation is approved, said Peter Tregillus, programs director for Southern Ute Community Action Programs, which operates Road Runner Transit.

“We’ll work to get a system up and running this year,” Tregillus said.

It could take a year to do, he said, because larger coach buses must be purchased and specially trained drivers hired.

Sara Wakefield, director at Manna Soup Kitchen, said the service would fill a critical gap: agencies’ ability to help the area’s most needy people.

“Public transportation is essential for people in poverty,” she said. “It’s one of the first issues people have to face when trouble arises.”

And trouble is hitting people farther up the socioeconomic ladder than before, she said.

Many local people and families are living on the edge of a financial cliff, she said. In that situation, a simple car breakdown can sometimes be catastrophic.

For people in economic distress leaving the Four Corners often is the only way to recover, she said.

“It’s so expensive and so hard here that your best bet is to leave in some cases,” Wakefield said.

But even getting out of town can be difficult with high airfare costs and no bus service.

Werner said the soup kitchen sees at least a few people each month who have become stranded here or need a way out. In some dire cases, local nonprofit organizations have pooled their resources to fly people to Albuquerque to catch a bus. Volunteers also have had to drive people to Grand Junction to get them on a bus or to a crucial court or medical appointment, Wakefield said.

It’s a strain on the providers, volunteers and those seeking assistance, Wakefield said.

“Help is available to help someone buy a bus ticket, but we have no good way to get them to the station,” Wakefield said. “Having clients in a car with a volunteer for four hours is questionable, dangerous even.”

Tregillus said the need is such that SUCAP decided to apply for the funding and take on the service, even though it’s unclear whether the organization will see revenues above the costs to provide the service.

“People do get stranded here,” Tregillus said.

Road Runner is one of the few, if not the only, organizations here that has the available operational management to take on the job without a large initial capital investment beyond the cost of the buses and drivers.

“We have the offices, the manpower and the organizational resources to take on the route,” Tregillus said.

Beyond helping people who are stranded and struggling, Werner and Wakefield said they see potential benefits to regional tourism.

It opens the door for a different kind of visitor to experience the region’s many outdoor and cultural amenities, from low-income college students to affluent visitors from larger cities and countries where public transportation is readily available and many people do not drive.

Laura Lewis Marchino, assistant director for Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado, agreed and said the service also could help draw new businesses and jobs.

“The rural nature of our area does hurt us,” Marchino said.

Prospective employers considering new headquarters often study public transportation options before relocating, she said.

“Transportation is a huge link,” Marchino said, “and public transit is unique in that if you have it, they will come.”

While the system could see net losses in the beginning, services tend to grow in popularity and use after they’ve been in effect for a while, she said.

“You have to start the route and show people it’s predictable and will be there when they need it,” Marchino said, “then people will begin to use it and depend on it.”

Tregillus and Marchino pointed to recent years’ rider number increases for the Durango Transit system and successes in boosting Road Runner rider numbers in Ignacio, where ridership has increased after services were added with additional funding from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

Road Runner executives are aiming for a daily route to Grand Junction, but service could start with just a weekend route depending on funding.

Either way, Marchino said, the effort is an “experiment” that must be tried.

“A gap is there, and I definitely think we need an option,” Marchino said.

herald@durangoherald.com

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