The Airbnb host in Palisade, the Western Slope peach mecca, was surprised when Adam Estroff showed up for a weekend getaway from Denver on his bike.

He’d loaded it onto a Bustang coach at Union Station for the journey to Grand Junction, then hopped on two wheels to complete his trip. The adventure took just a little planning, Estroff said, and it “was amazing to me how different it felt to be able to do it without my car.”

Colorado’s transportation department hopes to tap into that spirit when it launches a new weekend mountain transit service along Interstate 70 on May 27, the start of Memorial Day weekend.

Bustang’s van-based cousin, called “Pegasus,” will be tailored for journeys just a little closer to home, as far west as Avon. Several aspects, including roughly hourly trips in each direction that make same-day returns possible, are designed to make it easier for metro Denver residents and tourists to head into the mountains without driving.

In a car-dependent state where many weekend warriors and skiers long have yearned for an elusive I-70 train, the Pegasus service’s launch will pose the largest test yet of the practicality of public transportation to the mountains.

Colorado Department of Transportation officials and community leaders along the I-70 corridor express confidence there’s an untapped market. Public transportation is already a fixture in mountain towns, driving Colorado’s status as the nation’s leader in ridership for rural transit systems.

Backers point to the Pegasus system’s connectivity as an asset: Most of the mountain stops are at town transit centers, including in Frisco and Vail, where riders can leave on foot or board local bus systems to reach hotels, outdoor attractions or even trailheads.

They can bring along their bikes, or skis and snowboards in the winter. And Pegasus boosters also picture residents of mountain communities using the service to head to Denver to, say, catch an afternoon Rockies game at Coors Field or go shopping before returning home that evening.

“It truly provides a viable transportation option to get out of your car” on I-70, said Amber Blake, the director of CDOT’s Division of Transit and Rail, who’s been coordinating Pegasus’ launch for months.

Launch comes before large Floyd Hill project

The new service is coming at a time when I-70 is as traffic-congested as ever on busy weekends. Its launch, timed before the start of the $700 million Floyd Hill highway project next year, is the highest-profile bid by the Colorado Department of Transportation to experiment with ways to reduce driving and greenhouse gas emissions — even if the impact from the initial service is likely to be meager.

But CDOT officials hope to scale up Pegasus service if it’s successful, potentially expanding it to weekdays in the next year. The first-year operating budget is estimated at $3.8 million, on top of $1.2 million in start-up capital costs.

Though some state Republicans have questioned CDOT’s foray into transit services in recent years, the move has strong support from the Democrat-controlled legislature. Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign a recently passed transit-boosting bill that includes a fare-free transit pilot for local transit systems, including the Regional Transportation District, along with $30 million to help cover CDOT’s pilot plan to significantly expand  Bustang service over the next few years.

The goal is to help its routes recover from the pandemic and attract new riders by expanding service, whether on the main routes or on the new Pegasus service.

One sign of the I-70 demand: While the north and south Bustang core routes on the Interstate 25 corridor, which rely more on commuters, are still attracting less than half their pre-pandemic ridership, CDOT says the west line is actually outpacing 2019 levels by 36%.

Estroff, for one, is bullish that people used to driving I-70 will give Pegasus a try.

“I’m aligned with a lot of people who are often critical of CDOT,” said Estroff, a transportation and housing advocate with YIMBY Denver. “I think this is one of the good things they’re doing, and over time it’s really going to pay off.”

The use of vans with a capacity of 11 riders instead of buses will mean less capacity for each trip, but officials point to several benefits: More service frequency, easier hiring for the contractor — since a commercial driver’s license isn’t required for drivers — and the ability to cruise in I-70’s peak-period express toll lanes near Idaho Springs, which are too narrow for buses.

While Bustang has aimed for a broad reach since CDOT launched the intercity coach bus service in 2015, with a growing number of connecting routes that now reach several outlying cities and towns, that’s come at the expense of convenience. Especially in the mountains, they tend to offer long hauls and limited trips each day. An exception is the Snowstang buses that take skiers and snowboards from Denver directly to several ski resorts during the winter.

CDOT officials, including executive director Shoshana Lew, envision Pegasus as a complement, offering an option better suited for leisure travelers.

“We’re confident that it will be popular,” Lew said. “But it’s not a passive exercise to make things like this a success. It’s going to take a lot of collaboration between us and a lot of people along the corridor … to make it an attractive option.”

Much closer to textbook transit

Despite the use of smaller vehicles, Pegasus — named after the mythical winged horse — looks much closer than Bustang to textbook transit: On Fridays through Sundays (and Monday holidays), it will run in both directions between Denver’s Union Station and Avon on a roughly hourly basis between the early morning and late evening.

Riders looking for a long weekend can get a head start, taking one of several Thursday afternoon departures from the Denver area or returning east on Monday morning. Because Union Station’s underground bus terminal allows only larger vehicles, the vans will pick up at a sign post on Wewatta Street, within steps of an exit from the terminal.

The vans initially will stop at the Federal Center in Lakewood, Idaho Springs, Frisco and Vail on the way, with one-way fares running $6 to $20 depending on how far a rider travels. Online reservations are required, and discounts are available for seniors, people who are disabled and children younger than 12.

Additional stops still are in planning for foothills park-and-ride lots along I-70 closer to Denver, and Blake said Pegasus may eventually run as far west as Eagle.

I-70 Coalition Director Margaret Bowes, who served on a strategic planning committee for the new service, said CDOT’s relatively small start-up investment and openness to expanding Pegasus are crucial.

“We will never be able to widen this highway enough to accommodate all the demand,” she said. “Getting people into fewer vehicles is absolutely part of the long-term solution.”

Among her board members are local elected officials in mountain communities who point out benefits on the ground there, too, where local streets are clogged by visitors at busy times.

Randy Wheelock, a Clear Creek County commissioner, says the service has “the potential to be a behavior game-changer,” while Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said county officials are thinking of ways to improve Pagasus’ connections to the Summit Stage bus system — though it currently has reduced service because of an operator shortage.

Over Vail Pass, Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr expressed optimism about Pegasus’ prospects but said it may require mountains of patience.

“It takes a bit of time to kick a habit that we know isn’t good for us,” he wrote in an email, “and I wonder how the immediate ridership will look. My concern is that we government types will be impatient in waiting for demand response. … Public sector ventures are notoriously risk-averse.

“But who knows, maybe it will surprise us, as Bustang did, and prove head-slappingly late in answering an obvious demand.”

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