The Lift expected to match ridership numbers from 2017
The spring season has officially arrived for The Lift, Winter Park and Fraser’s free public transportation system, which shifted over to its new schedule on Monday. But winter is the system’s big season, and despite starting slow, ridership numbers look right on par with the 2016-17 season.
Last year The Lift carried about 470,000 riders during the winter months, from mid-November through April, according to Michael Koch, transit manager for Winter Park. Ridership numbers from the 2017-18 season are currently sitting at around 450,000, though Koch noted that he expects to at least match last year’s numbers once the data from April is added.
“Right now there’s a deficit of about 20,000 riders, but I actually think we’re right on target,” said Koch. “In March we had 110,000 riders, so we should see at least 20,000 in April. We’re probably right where we were last year.”
Koch said that ridership started relatively slowly this winter. There was a 15 percent increase in riders in November based on figures from last winter, but a 20 percent decrease in December and a 13 percent decrease in January.
Numbers began to jump back up as the season progressed, with a two percent increase in ridership for February, and a 20 percent increase in March.
Clearly snow was one of the big factors, with snowfall numbers at Winter Park Resort lagging in the early months and picking up in February, but Koch believes other factors played a roll in the late season ridership surge.
“I think the increase was due to better communication with our riders this year compared to last year,” said Koch. “People were more familiar with our RideHop app, and more comfortable using the system. There’s definitely a learning curve, but the app became more reliable, we got more snowfall later in the season, and so we had more visitors.”
A final count for the winter season won’t be released until next month. Once all the data from this season has been compiled, the Transit Advisory Committee (TAC), will discuss and make recommendations for potential changes in routes or service for next winter.
Only one significant change took place for this summer’s route, a fixed-route through Grand Park, which Koch said was in high demand last year and could help increase summer ridership.
“We’ve been hearing from Grand Park that they’d like to see that fixed route come through there,” said Koch. “So I’m expecting more ridership there. And I would say that overall we’ll likely see an increase for the season.”
The summer ridership mark isn’t nearly as difficult to reach. While almost half-a-million riders use the service in the winter, only about 30,000 used it last summer (May through mid-November). That means service is reduced to one line, and the number of active drivers employed by First Transit, who is contracted to run operations and maintenance for Winter Park, drops from about 55 to five.
Still, early discussions with Granby suggest that expanded service out west is a real possibility in the future.
“We are talking with Granby about doing a year-round connection, connecting Granby, Tabernash, Fraser, Winter Park and the resort,” said Koch. “Those conversations have been going really well, and it seems like everyone’s really interested in making that happen. That’s one project I’m super excited about. It could change the way people move in the county.”
But funding issues will have to be settled before moving forward with expansion. Currently The Lift is funded via sales tax increases in Winter Park (two percent) and Fraser (one percent) that were passed in 2015. For their part, Fraser pitches in for about a quarter of the costs.
That money helps to fund operations, staffing, marketing and maintenance. Though as the system grows, other expenses will become more necessary.
For example, a large majority of the bus fleet, 24 in all, are more than 20 years old and need replacing.
“It certainly doesn’t help things on the maintenance side,” said Koch. “We really need a new fleet to be operating at max efficiency.”
But a new fleet is expensive. The town of Winter Park, with help from CDOT and the FTA, purchased two new Gillig buses this year for about $420,000 apiece. Koch said that he recently reached back out to Gillig to place an order for two more, which are expected either this December or early next year.
There is also talk of a new transit maintenance facility, though it’s still in early planning stages, and no solid plans have been made.
So while The Lift as we know it is still in its relative infancy, with expansion and improvements certainly on the horizon, the system appears to be working well for now.
“Overall I think it was a really great season,” said Koch. “We definitely saw improvement over last season, and hopefully next year we’ll see an improvement over this year.”
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