The Lift bus system works on ridership and capacity improvements post-COVID |

The Lift bus system works on ridership and capacity improvements post-COVID

One of The Lift's buses sits at the 5th and Agate bus stop in Granby on Feb. 1.
Kyle McCabe/Sky-Hi News

Winter Park’s bus transit system, The Lift, had a ridership of 522,800 people in 2019, but saw a 30% drop in ridership in 2020 because of COVID. Driver shortages in 2021 forced The Lift to decrease its capacity, and ridership dropped another 16%. Last year saw a rebound, though, with a 17% increase in ridership.

The 2022 ridership total of 358,402 sits well behind the pre-pandemic level of 2019, but Winter park’s Interim Transit Manager Michael Koch said the 2022-2023 winter season has shown slow but steady improvement.

“The great news about this season, you know, we’re short-staffed, but we are staffed better than we were at any point last year,” Koch said. “We have been able to operate on all routes.”

In 2021, one of The Lift’s lines did not run at all, while others experienced cutbacks and interruptions. This season, Koch said, the system has maintained hourly service on every route, unless something unexpected happens, like a driver calling out sick or a bus breaking down.

Most routes operate on hourly schedules during the week and half-hourly schedules on weekends and holidays over the winter season. 

Over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend in January, The Lift limited its operations, running hourly buses on most routes to keep buses running between Winter Park Resort and the Cooper Creek Transit Center on a 15-minute schedule.

“We looked at where we were gonna have pinch points, and you know, where the largest crowds were going to be,” Koch said. “Understanding that the resort would likely park out pretty early, that was gonna send people into town.”

The Lift bus system can’t increase its services until it can overcome its biggest hurdle, a staffing shortage.
The Lift Winter Park Transit/ Courtesy photo

Extra buses running on the Cooper Creek Express route, or Lavender Line, helped The Lift avoid a backup of people at the transit station. Koch said the plan worked well, and The Lift did not receive any major complaints.

Other holidays during the winter season, like Christmas or New Year’s, draw large crowds of skiers as well, but Koch said The Lift can get more relief drivers from the system’s operator, First Transit, for those holidays than for MLK Day.

“First Transit, they have quite a few contracts with universities across the country, but those universities are closed over the (Christmas and New Year’s) holidays,” Koch said. “So they were able to provide us with a lot of relief drivers from those locations.”

The Granby Regional Commuter route, or Teal Line, operates on a less-than-hourly schedule on weekdays, weekends and holidays during the winter and is the only line with that sparse of a schedule. 

Sofia Jimenez, a seasonal Winter Park worker who lives in Granby, takes the bus everyday. She moved to Granby from Costa Rica and said she takes the bus everyday, whether she needs to get to work or wants to go skiing.

“It’s uncomfortable to move here,” Jimenez said. “Just because we don’t have cars, so we have to depend on the bus.”

Jimenez said the Teal Line schedule, which has 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. as the only morning departures from Granby, make it harder to rely on The Lift as her only source of transportation. She said she would have had to wait two hours after missing the bus while grocery shopping one day if a friend with a car had not been able to pick her up.

Five buses run in each direction between Granby and Winter Park every day, and Koch said he has heard from Teal Line riders about wanting increased service.

“We’ve heard a lot from riders and actually, even from the Town of Granby, that they would like more service,” Koch said. “I’m very supportive of that. I think it’s a great idea.”

Two barriers prevent The Lift from running more buses between Winter Park and Granby, though. Winter Park Town Manager Keith Riesberg wrote in an email that the Town of Winter Park spends around $300,000 each year subsidizing routes that run through unincorporated Grand County, which include the Teal and Purple lines.

“How do we do this without Winter Park just subsidizing a county-wide system,” Koch said.

Koch said the cost Winter Park contributes may be closer to $400,000 when including capital improvements, and the county contributes around $60,000 to the transit system each year. The bigger hurdle to adding more service on the Granby line, Koch said, would be staffing.

“If an extra million dollars landed in our lap right now, we don’t have the drivers to operate the services,” Koch said. “That, to me, that’s our bigger hook. But as soon as that’s taken care of, then it’s, ‘How does, how do we do this without Winter Park just subsidizing a county-wide system?’”

Overall, Koch said he is optimistic about The Lift’s services continuing to improve. He pointed out that the driver shortage has been getting better over the last year and the system’s new transit center, phase one of which is expected to be built by mid-summer.

Moving from the current facility, where buses park outside overnight, to the new one will help with everything from cleaning the buses so passengers can see out of the windows to decreasing maintenance turnaround time, Koch said.

Operations Manager Philip Van Horn wrote in an email that The Lift had 23 bus drivers in February, four more than it had a year prior, and was in the process of onboarding two more. Anyone interested in driving for The Lift can apply on its website.

“Honestly, even if they only want to drive like two or three days a week, holy smokes, that would make a world of difference,” Koch said. “They are more than welcome to apply for a driver job. We would love that.”

More Like This, Tap A Topic
granbywinter park

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.