On the road in the Colorado mountains: CDOT’s Bustang (pictured above) plans to add an additional daily route in July. (Courtesy photo)

Big snows are no problem for Bustang. Neither is the coronavirus: Except for a brief, three-month hiatus from last March to June, CDOT’s popular statewide bus service, which operates as Bustang Outrider seven days a week between Durango and Grand Junction, has been up and running.

In fact, the only difference has been a couple of stops. One has been added in southern Montrose, near Target; another is planned for Olathe; and Bustang Outrider’s stop in Grand Junction has been relocated to the Grand Valley Transit Downtown Transfer Facility, two blocks south. Bustang used to stop at the Greyhound Bus Station, “but Greyhound didn’t renew its lease on that building,” said Bustang Outrider’s project manager Jeffrey Prillwitz. The coronavirus has pushed riders away from public transportation. Despite “installing UV lights, which are known to kill viruses,” in Bustang’s ventilation system, “and switching to medical-grade filters, our ridership is definitely down by about 50 percent because of COVID,” Prillwitz said. To employ social distancing, just 50 percent of the space on each bus is utilized for passengers.

“We monitor rider numbers closely. If we needed to, we’d add another bus to the route,” Prillwitz said. So far, that hasn’t been necessary.

Yet no one doubts that ultimately, bus ridership will increase again, simply because more people are moving to the Western Slope.

The big change will come later this year, when Bustang adds a second daily route from Telluride to Grand Junction. “We’re tentatively planning for July,” Prillwitz said. “We’re about to issue a request for a proposal to operators. We do have the buses purchased.”

They are 2021 models, built by Belgian coach manufacturer Van Hool.

“Right now they’re Darth Vader buses,” in sleek, solid black, Prillwitz said. “There’s plenty of time to get them wrapped” (lingo for Bustang’s colorful logo, a mustang, which recalls both the Wild West and the state’s beloved Denver Broncos).

The schedule on the new route “hasn’t really been formulated yet,” Prillwitz said. “We’ll be working with various cities along the way, and SMART (the San Miguel Authority for Regional Transportation) in San Miguel County. We’ll be using the same stop that SMART uses in Rico.”

The intent of the new route is to allow those living in Telluride and Ridgway (and points north) to spend some time in Grand Junction for doctor’s appointments, or to do some shopping. “People can do a day trip and come back,” Prillwitz said. “With our current route, there’s no time to do anything. The bus is only in town an hour” before it heads back to Durango. “That daily route is still being run. Now you’ll have two choices.”

As it is, riders already do have a choice (particularly if navigating snowy highways, solo, is not your preferred method of travel between mountain towns). “We’ve been fortunate on this route,” Prillwitz said. “You look at the accident on Lizard Head” a couple of winters ago, in which a car collided head-on with a Bustang bus.

“A couple of people were shook up when they got off, and the bus driver had to stay off his feet a couple of days” because of the impact, Prillwitz said.

“On the Gunnison route, a rock rolled down and hit one of the buses on the west side of Monarch Pass last week,” he added. “If you were in a car, you would have been dead.” But everyone aboard that Bustang was fine. “That’s living in the mountains: there’s snow, and weather, and rockfall, and people who don’t know how to drive,” Prillwitz summed up. “It’s definitely safer on the bus.”

Bustang now sells contactless tickets through an app you can download to your phone. For a schedule, visit ridebustang.com.