Riders embark on the SMART bus to Norwood at the stop near the San Miguel County Courthouse in Telluride. Additional runs to Norwood are being contemplated. (Courtesy photo)

The San Miguel Authority for Regional Transportation’s (SMART) board and staff held its monthly meeting Thursday via Zoom and tackled issues both new and ongoing. Among them are potential tweaks to the popular Lawson Hill link, policies surrounding unruly passengers, and the go-ahead to hire a consulting team that will guide the transportation entity as it conducts a Seniors and Disabled Mobility Gaps study.

SMART officials are finding that drivers are having a tough time meeting the 30-minute loop time between Telluride and Lawson Hill, particularly on weekday mornings when school traffic clogs the Spur. Operations manager, Kari Distefano, said that expanding hours and lengthening the loop time could go far to increase the reliability of the well-used route.

“It's been a challenge for the drivers to keep Lawson running on time, especially (when) the traffic starts getting bad,” Distefano said. “The school generates a ton of traffic and also in the mornings. So we've been exploring an option to extend the hours in the morning but running a 45-minute loop. And the thinking behind that is it’d just be a lot easier for the drivers to maintain a schedule and thereby increase our reliability, which is, you know, something that's always been a goal.”

The potentially re-worked schedule takes into account morning work and school arrival needs, as well as an on-time connection to the Bustang stop at the Lawson Hill commuter lot. The Bustang ferries passengers north to Grand Junction and south to Durango, with numerous stops along the way, on a daily basis.

“Something we tried to pinpoint is to first of all, make sure that commuters are getting where they need to go,” Distefano said. “We also kept an eye on the school traffic both the (Telluride) Mountain School and Telluride school and to make sure that they need they get where they need to go. And the other one that that we're keeping in mind is the connection with the Bustang because you know even though that is not part of our purview, it follows our mission in that we're trying to get people out of cars and into buses.”

In her memo to the board, Distefano added, “This scenario would have the advantage of extended service and make arrival and departure times more consistent, especially between 7:30 and 9 a.m. and 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. when the buses often get hung up in traffic and are late to stops. The disadvantage would be fewer buses from Lawson Hill at peak commute times.”

Adding another evening run to Norwood, as well as adding a midday Norwood run is also being considered, along with a possible Lawson Hill to Mountain Village route. SMART staff will schedule meetings with the agency’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee to solicit feedback.

The phenomenon of unruly passengers is well known on a national level, as aggressive passengers assault flight attendants, often over the federal requirement to don facemasks throughout the course of a flight. SMART drivers are also confronted with disruptive behavior from passengers and deal with a range of issues such as refusal to wear face coverings or general drunkenness. When drivers reported one such passenger, SMART staff consulted their policies, which did not provide specificity, so Distefano and SMART’s executive director, David Averill, drafted new language for the board’s consideration.

“What are what we're currently using as the San Miguel Authority for Regional Transportation transit policies and procedures and it does have some, some language about incidents and some strategies to deal with them, but it's not specific about what could happen when these people continue and, as was this in this case, continued over the course of a couple of days violation of the rule,” Distefano said. “So what we've drafted up … basically allows us to discontinue service for people that just routinely violate the rules and the mask thing. Yeah, there's a lot of personal opinions out there about that. But the reality is, it's all about the comfort of not just that person, but the passengers and the driver. We just can't let that go.”

SMART board member Kris Holstrom supported strengthening current policy.

“Having a very robust policy is important,” she said, “I mean, masks are one thing but as we've seen throughout our society and transportation in general, people are getting a little strange out there, or stranger, so I really support having a solid policy.”

Board member Patrick Berry asked about the draft’s legal aspects and recommended it be subject to an attorney’s review.

“Do you feel like there's any legal exposure and trying to enforce this?” Berry asked. “That's the first thing I think if somebody’s getting thrown off the bus.”

Averill said that his drivers, should they need to eject a passenger, are trained to leave them at a designated stop, “the next sheltered stop or where they have cell phone coverage.” He said he’d also consulted with San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, whose deputies would likely be advised of violent or disruptive passengers.

“We’ll run it by the attorney and make the appropriate changes,” Averill said. “That's a good point. We were trying to be pretty careful about that stuff because we don't want to be accused of putting someone in harm's way.”

Repeated violations, such as refusal to wear a facemask, give drivers the right to refuse service, Distefano explained. Particularly aggressive passengers that may pose a danger to themselves or other riders can trigger a call to the sheriff’s department, who would then handle the issue. Distefano said the revised policy’s aim is to create consistency.

“We get drunk people on the bus. And that that would be another occasion where if somebody routinely got on the bus and exhibited drunk and disorderly behavior, the bus driver would have an opportunity just to say no, you can't ride this bus,” she said. “But it all has to be documented. You know that there's an incident form involved. So it the idea is to just give us more of a policy that's clearly defined so that if this does come up again, we'll be dealing with it in a more comprehensive manner that's not changing up just depending on the circumstance.”

In other business, SMART staff received unanimous approval from the board to finalize a contract with consultants Fehr and Peers to initiate a study that will ultimately result in the formation of a transit plan to better serve seniors and disabled riders. The roadmap is a high priority project for Averill and SMART, one that the consultant team has said it can complete by June. The project budget is $48,000, with 80 percent paid for with Colorado Department of Transportation grants and the balance covered within the SMART budget and local matches.