Big Sky Connect, a new on-demand micro transit system, will launch mid-December; buses now run twice as often along the “core corridor” between Town Center and Mountain Village
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
Darren Brugmann, new executive director of the Big Sky Transportation District, believes in three reasons to ride the bus: better use of time, smaller environmental impact and saving money. He hopes those reasons will get people on board with Big Sky’s revamped public transit system.
In July, Brugmann became the first full-time director in Skyline’s 17 years of service, bringing with him three decades of experience as a transit official, including 20 years in Seattle and the past seven in Jackson, Wyoming.
For this winter season, Skyline removed a few stops to speed up the circuit between the Mountain Village and Meadow Village, which now allows the orange/yellow line to circulate twice as frequently as in previous years. To help get commuters, locals and guests to the bus stops, Skyline will also launch an on-demand micro transit service in time for the holidays.
“We don’t have a miracle cure [to keep buses] on schedule, because we’re sitting in the same traffic that other cars are,” Brugmann told EBS. “That’s our point—if we can get more people on the bus and get some cars off the road, then we can provide better service.”
With “significant help” from the Lone Mountain Land Company, Brugmann hired a consulting group from the central Rockies to help define Skyline’s current operational challenges, identify commuter and traffic patterns, and define the vision and goals of Skyline. To convert those insights into a more trustworthy network of public transportation, Brugmann rebuilt the Skyline website and launched Big Sky Connect, Skyline’s new on-demand ride service.
Although on-demand micro transit is easily described as ‘similar to Uber and Lyft,’ Brugmann is hesitant to use that comparison.
After a fast-moving process of request-for-proposals and interviews with micro transit providers, Skyline hired Downtowner for its experience in similar resort towns including Park City, Lake Tahoe and Vail.
Riders will hail vehicles using a smartphone app, Brugmann explained, and Big Sky Connect will use shared rides to consolidate requests during peak times. Riders should not have to wait more than 15 minutes.
“We have smaller vehicles that can more efficiently service not just [bus] stops, but a whole service area. We’ll go door to door, [to] a condo or a person’s home, or anywhere.”
Unlike Uber and Lyft, rides with Big Sky Connect are free. The drivers are not independent contractors working their own schedules, but Downtowner employees, scheduled and paid with regularity.
Big Sky Connect will have a fleet of mid-sized vehicles and minivans, providing free rides around the Meadow Village more efficiently than “fixed-route buses trying to drive in circles and hit as many stops as they can,” Brugmann said, describing Skyline’s typical service. Fewer stops will allow the bus to run more routes along the “core corridor” between the mountain and meadow.
Whether riders are going from the office to the grocery store or between their home and the bus stop in Town Center, Brugmann hopes Big Sky Connect will reduce the personal vehicles driven by residents, workers and guests. He said micro transit “is the new ‘it’ thing in the transit world” and it’s being evaluated by transit agencies across the country.
“Our goal for this first winter season is to bring [Downtowner] on board for the Town Center and Meadow Village area. We want to focus on that area to introduce the public to this type of service, but we look to expand that hopefully next year, [adding] vans in Mountain Village.”
In the long term, if Big Sky Connect is successful in the Meadow Village and Mountain Village, Brugmann hopes to include the Big Sky portion of the Gallatin Canyon along U.S. Highway 191.
This fall, the Big Sky Transportation Board elected to decrease canyon service, ending the route at Buck’s T4 Lodge and removing stops including the Riverhouse, the Corral and Rainbow Ranch.
“It solely had to do with ridership in previous years. It just didn’t make fiscal sense to be sending buses hourly to those locations, when the ridership just didn’t warrant that service,” Brugmann said. “When we removed the service, we heard [community] concerns and we’ve worked to see what we can do within our limited amount of resources—particularly [limited] drivers and vehicles.”
Skyline will try to “squeeze in” about five trips per day to some of those locations further south, but a longer-term solution could look like Big Sky Connect bringing people to and from the bus stop at Buck’s T4—although that could be years away.
Ennion Williams, board chair of the Big Sky Transportation District since 2008, said his main goal is to create three distinct micro transit areas: The canyon, the meadow and the mountain.
“It’s a work in progress, we’ll see how it works and hopefully continue to grow that service in the coming years. If we could have more micro-transit service feeding the main bus routes, it just makes for a more efficient [bus] service,” Williams said. “In areas where we’ve had to cut [bus] service, we’re hoping to accommodate them the best we can.”
Williams also works for Outlaw Partners, the publisher of Explore Big Sky.
Big-picture needs for Big Sky
Brugmann and Williams believe that Big Sky needs a central transit center, not only to serve employees, but also guests.
“How do we get guests to get out of their cars, and just ride the transit?” Brugmann asked. “Not only getting [to Big Sky], but also while they’re here.”
For now, the Town Center bus stop is the closest thing to a central bus stop for those looking for a ride up to the Mountain Village, or to Bozeman. But with more employees commuting from Bozeman to growing employers like the Yellowstone Club, Montage and One&Only, Willliams said a transit hub will be crucial to cut down on personal vehicles.
“Envision it as a place in Town Center that can accommodate multiple large buses [from around Big Sky and Bozeman],” Williams said. “People can transfer [to buses and shuttles] and disperse to where they need to go around the greater Big Sky area. It’s also a place where a [visitor] can get dropped off and picked up to go to the mountain or go out to dinner. [We face] the challenge of creating a system that would accommodate employees and also work for tourists coming to Big Sky without a rental car. Those are the overarching goals of what we’re working on now.”