The new “Outrider” bus manufactured by Belgian company Van Hool, recently added to the Durango-to-Grand Junction route. (Courtesy photo) 

The sleek buses with the leaping mustang logo — a nod to the Denver Broncos, and Colorado’s Wild West heritage — sat idle from March to June during this state’s “stay-at-home” orders. 

But for the past month, CDOT’s signature statewide bus service, dubbed Bustang, has been back in business. Though ridership statistics for the past 30 days were unavailable at press time, there’s no doubt that fewer people are riding right now. That’s by design: CDOT has implemented a host of new safety protocols to help protect the health of both passengers and drivers, one of which is social distancing. As a result, certain seats have been blocked off. Larger ‘Bustang’ conveyances are limited to 22 passengers, and smaller Outrider buses, including the one that traverses the route from Durango to Grand Junction daily (with stops in Telluride, Placerville, Ridgway and Montrose along the way), are now limited to 16 passengers. 

“We have carefully monitored when to safely resume serving our Bustang and Outrider customers and are doing so now, with significant precautions in place that follow guidance and best practices from public health officials,” CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew said in a statement as the bus rides resumed. “We ask passengers to purchase tickets in advance, to the extent possible, so that we can minimize physical reactions and minimize social distancing.”

Other safety protocols, according to Jeffrey Prillwitz, project manager for Bustang Outrider, include a requirement that masks be worn by both drivers and passengers; that passengers be offered hand-sanitizer wipes upon boarding; and that passengers’ temperatures will be taken upon boarding (anyone with a fever will not be allowed to board).

Buses will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected “upon the completion of each route and at the end of each day’s routes” (including all seats, front and back headrests, armrests, etc.) 

The Durango-to-Grand Junction buses will be switched out every day, to allow each vehicle to “rest” 24 hours between cleanings. “We’re ordering additional equipment to protect our customers, including UV lights and medical-grade filters for the climate on the bus,” Prillwitz said.

The new service includes one additional new thing: a bus to replace the one that was totaled last year in an accident (which was not the Outrider driver’s fault) on Lizard Head Pass last year. 

Though Prillwitz could not say exactly how many riders are hopping aboard these days, “the Grand Junction to Denver route has been coming back the strongest” of all, he pointed out, a testament to the desire not to drive I-70 if you can — for example — sit and read and catch up on your email (every Bustang bus offers device-charging, and WiFi where available). Prillwitz has owned a pickup for 17 years. “It just hit 100,000 miles,” he said, “because I ride the bus to work all the time.” Even when you figure in all the stops, “it only takes a few minutes longer to ride the bus,” he pointed out. (With the money he saved on gas, Prillwitz used to take a trip to Europe every summer until this one.) 

Bus service is extremely popular in the San Juans for another reason besides economics: this is a place where roads are icy and winter driving is something many dread. It is also an increasingly popular conveyance to the slopes (“Snowstang” is thriving with routes from the urban corridor to ski areas closer to the Front Range). CDOT plans to offer four new routes each year, and half go to ski areas. The routes include Telluride to Grand Junction; Sterling-to-Greeley; Craig to Denver, via Winter Park; and Trinidad to Pueblo. “We don’t go from Montrose to Gunnison,” Prillwitz said. “That’s one we want to put in. There’s a lot of demand for it.” Such a route would put local skiers within easy reach of Crested Butte, yet another popular ski resort. “The last time I rode Bustang Outrider in your area, in January,” Prillwitz said, “10 skiers from Dallas boarded in Montrose for Telluride.”

For a schedule and safety information, visit ridebustang.com.