The Colorado Department of Transportation’s “Bustang” service has begun running between Durango and Denver, according to officials. (Courtesy photo)

Rural bus service can be a challenge in a mountainous state, and the work to bring CDOT’s popular Bustang “Outrider” service to the San Juans has been an uphill climb.

“We got the new buses this spring” for the route from Durango to Denver, said Jeff Prillwitz, CDOT’s bus operations coordinator. “But because of the lease arrangements, it took the state until September before we could get them out to our operator.”

The operator is Road Runner Transit, a program of the nonprofit Southern Colorado Community Action Agency (SoCoCAA), based in Ignacio. In addition to challenges of leases, there were hurdles of infrastructure: Road Runner’s coaches were serviced in Farmington, New Mexico, where there were too few places to get them repaired. And that led to glitches in service.

“We didn’t have the right equipment to offer the level of service that we had been providing before,” as SoCoCAA’s programs director Peter Tregillus put it. “So we had to lease vehicles.” It had been a challenge to keep those newer vehicles on the road just five days a week (never mind daily).

At last — and none too soon, given that winter is fast approaching — the contracts are in place, and CDOT’s new, Belgian-designed, 35-foot Vanhoule coaches, featuring wifi (where available along the route), bathrooms, and outlets for charging smartphones, tablets and computers are now operating daily between Durango and Grand Junction.

In contrast to the previous set-up, servicing the Belgian vehicles has gone swimmingly.

“Our primary contractor is (diesel engine repair specialist) Stewart & Stevenson in Grand Junction,” Tregillus said. “We have one bus sitting up there in the bus yard. When it’s time for service, we swap out the one from Durango that needs it, and bring the other back from Grand Junction.”

There is a third coach standing by, as well. “Unless two go down” at once, Tregillus said, “we’re in good shape.”

Even so, some glitches remain. The Outrider schedule between Durango and Grand Junction, which includes stops in Rico, Telluride, Placerville, Ridgway and Montrose, has been posted correctly on CDOT’s website, ridebustang.com. But the sentence that “online/mobile purchases are not yet available” is not correct.

“We don’t do online tickets any more,” Prillwitz said (“It just amazes me the length of time some of this takes” to get worked out, he added). Today, the killer app is, well, apps: riders download them onto their devices “and the driver can zap you right on-board.” Apps aren’t available for this route yet, however, so right now, riders must pay cash as they board.

“All routes across the state are the same,” Prillwitz said. “It is .17 per mile,” which works out to $43 between Durango and Grand Junction. Seniors and disabled riders travel for half-price.

One serious advantage to taking the bus is coming soon, for those who dread winter driving: CDOT’s coaches are equipped to travel on dodgy roads, in deep snow.

“Last year wasn’t too bad, weather-wise,” Tregillus noted. By contrast, in January 2017, “there were 31 avalanches between Dolores and Telluride on Lizard Head Pass.”

“Lizard Head is it”— the winter danger spot on this route, Prillwitz agreed. “Everybody loves these buses,” because they carry a secret weapon: “automatic drop-down chains,” which drivers can deploy with the push of a button when the bus is driving “30 mph or below. They work real well,” Prillwitz said. “I can’t think of a single bus that we’ve had stuck in snow that has used these, and that includes buses on Vail and Loveland Pass.”

He hopes that at some point this winter, riders will be able to check the Bustang website the morning they are due to travel to see if an avalanche, or an accident, has caused a delay in service. The transportation authority is considering adding new routes in southwest Colorado, including direct routes from Montrose to Gunnison, and Telluride to Grand Junction. No matter what, they won’t add a route south from Montrose to Durango along Highway 550.

“About 60 CDOT operators have died in the line of duty over the years, and a big percentage of them were driving snowplows,” Prillowitz said. “We are not going to run buses over Red Mountain Pass. That’s a big no-no.”