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Longtime city staff member takes helm of Durango transit

Sarah Hill named as director of transportation
Sarah Hill, who was recently named the new city of Durango director of transportation, sits behind the steering wheel of a trolley Wednesday. She started with the city of Durango as a part-time Durango Transit bus driver in 2012. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Talk about moving up through the ranks.

Sarah Hill started her career with the city of Durango as a part-time Durango Transit bus driver in 2012. Last week, she was appointed director of the city’s Transportation Department.

During her nine-year career, Hill has overseen bicycle-pedestrian projects, community engagement programs and transit services for seniors and people with disabilities. She became assistant director around 2018 and became acting director in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have become pretty passionate about the service we provide,” Hill said. “I see accessibility as a human right. People shouldn’t have to wake up and worry about how they’re going to get to the doctor, or how they’re going to get to work. That should just be something we take for granted.”

The running joke in the transit field is that “transit is not every little girl’s dream,” Hill said.

Sarah Hill, the city’s new transportation director, sees accessibility as a human right. She has developed a hands-on understanding of the community’s transportation needs during her nine-year career with the city. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Her path to transit director started in Alaska, where she earned her commercial driver’s license for a glacier tour company.

“I moved to Durango to temporarily house-sit for a friend. The city of Durango was hiring a bus driver, and I was like, ‘Well, I have my CDL now.’ So I went for it,” Hill said.

In 2012, she became a full-time driver, and in 2014, she became a multi-modal specialist. That’s where she began to use her Portland State University Master of Science degree, which focused on building sustainable programs, she said.

Transportation Director Sarah Hill shows her bus pass to a Durango Trolley driver Wednesday on her way to a meeting at City Hall. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

She oversaw the Safe Routes to School Program, the Way to Go! Club, and did outreach and education for bike-pedestrian programs. Later, as the mobility coordinator, she focused on transit for senior and disabled passengers. After several departmental reorganizations, she became assistant director.

“Since the time that I was behind the wheel of a bus until now, I don’t think that priority (on accessibility) has really changed,” she said. “We provide a really important service.”

City Manager José Madrigal said Hill stood out because of her diverse experience with the city for nearly a decade, her performance as acting director during the pandemic and her experience with promotions.

Hill also serves on the board of directors for the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies, where she represents transit interests and provides professional development to the Colorado transit community, Madrigal said.

“The city of Durango is very fortunate to have Sarah in a position to be promoted,” he said. “(She) brings experience in running the transportation department and is recognized across the state of Colorado as a transit leader.”

The next chapter of transit

Hill comes to the position with an immediate challenge: funding.

About 79% of Durango Transit riders are transit-dependent. During the pandemic, capacity restraints and other public transit restrictions further clarified how many people depended on the service, Hill said.

“We started seeing a lot of people left behind at transit stops,” she said.

Sarah Hill sits behind the steering wheel of a trolley Wednesday. Hill has overseen Durango pedestrian-bicycle projects, community engagement projects, transit programs for seniors and those with disabilities, and more during her time with the city. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

But the city also faces a looming budget shortfall. Before 2018, the transit service received about $914,000 annually from a federal grant administered by the Colorado Department of Transportation, which supported $2.5 million in operating costs. By 2023, the city will receive about $414,000.

Route cuts in 2018 brought the budget to a sustainable level, but funding remains a concern, Hill said.

“Finding some funding to fill that gap is going to be (a top priority) – stat,” she said.

Ideally, the city would expand service hours and increase service areas to meet community needs, she said. City routes come with 30-minute wait times, which she would like to reduce.

“The difference between 10 or 15 minutes when you’re a bus rider can be really huge,” she said.

Hill understands: She depended on transit during graduate school. She learned the transportation network is about more than just buses, she said. People have to consider how to get to and from bus stops, and wait times make a difference for people running to appointments, she said.

Aside from finding sustainable funding, Hill plans to focus on following the city’s strategic plan.

Four transportation projects will increase connectivity and safety in Durango, she said. Two projects will connect downtown to other areas, such as a safe pedestrian crossing across Camino del Rio to the Animas River Trail. The other two focus on traffic calming on 32nd Street and safety improvements at College Drive and East Eighth Avenue.

In the long term, congestion will be an increasing problem.

“This valley is not going to get any larger. ... We’re going to really need to start promoting mode-shift as a way to address that,” she said, encouraging more usage of buses and bikes.

Hill lives in an unincorporated part of the county, which helps her understand the challenges county residents face with accessing transit. Regional partnerships, she said, will be important.

But once she’s in Durango, she frequently leaves her car behind and hops on the bus to go to meetings and run errands.

“It’s super-convenient. It does one small part to pull a little bit of congestion off the road, leaving my car parked,” Hill said.

Wade Moore, parking operations manager, has worked with Hill since 2012. Her time driving the Buzz Bus says it all, he said.

The former Buzz Bus offered rides home to responsible late-night revelers.

“You have to have a lot of patience. People ask you crazy things, and you’re dealing with a bunch of people who are inebriated,” Moore said. “She had the kindness and patience to deal with those people way back, and that shows up during her entire career.”

Sarah Hill, who became director of transportation in July, said her varied positions in the department have informed her management style. Employees are the department’s biggest asset, she said.

The pair have worked together on multiple transportation projects over the years. Hill has come up with creative incentives for the community to use multi-modal options. She is open to hearing different and competing viewpoints and keeps the community in the forefront of her mind, Moore said.

“Now that she’s moved up the ranks, she manages the person in her former positions, and she knows what they’re going through. She can empathize,” he said. “I think it’s super helpful for people who have come up through the ranks to then manage those positions because they then understand what’s involved with them.”

Sarah Hill, transportation director, regularly takes the Durango Trolley or city buses to meetings and to run errands in town. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Amber Blake, former transportation director and supervisor to Hill, said her leadership and communication skills stand out. Not only that, but she has the relationships in the community and at the state level to advocate for Durango, Blake said.

“I am thrilled to know that Sarah’s been appointed to the director of transportation position,” Blake said. “Sarah is an exceptional employee and an extraordinary human.”

smullane@durangoherald.com