Thu April 10, 2014

1 Month Before MAX Launch, No Detail Is Too Small

After two years of construction and numerous traffic detours, the first bus rapid transit system along the Front Range is about to debut in Fort Collins. The new $87-million dollar Mason Express, or MAX, route is being hailed as a key transportation alternative as the city continues to grow.

Grace Hood reports for Morning Edition.

“It’s a hot new type of service for the nation,” said Timothy Wilder, a service development manager with Transfort—the city’s bus service. “Part of the reason it’s more attractive—especially for communities like Fort Collins—is that it’s less expensive—a lot less expensive than a rail system would be.”

The first bus rapid transit system (BRT) started back in the ’70s. Since then cities like Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas have added them. Colorado’s first route launched Sept. 3 in the Roaring Fork Valleywith another expected between Boulder and Denver in 2016.

Even though it uses buses, BRT still feels more like a commuter train experience. Riders board from platforms that are level with buses, and tickets are bought in advance.

“It does operate differently, and it operates more efficiently for most people. So that’s what makes it so special. It gets you around the community more efficiently than a normal bus,” said Wilder.

And they don’t sound and look like your average bus.

The Fort Collins fleet consists of six, 60-foot articulated – or jointed – buses that run on compressed natural gas. They’re pretty fast and extremely quiet.

You can barely hear them pulling up to the city’s 12 stations and two transit centers.

Bus driving trainer Candice Folkers says there’s a lot to learn for drivers in the final weeks. Trainings include everything from navigating operating gates that separate dedicated parts of Mason Street, to negotiating the right distance between the loading platforms and the bus.

So what’s the hardest part?

“The fact that it bends in the middle,” said Folkers. “So when you’re coming into a stop a lot of times you’ll have your front end nice and straight, but your back end’s out. That takes a little getting used to—that you have to get the whole thing lined up.”

But just because MAX buses are running along the Mason Street corridor it doesn’t mean the service is open for business. Actual passenger service doesn’t begin until May 10.

Credit city of Fort Collins

Public Relations Coordinator Denise White says the route will be free for the first three months. Then one-way tickets will cost $1.25.

Further down the road, riders may also have to get used to route changes as the Mason corridor fills out and the Foothills Mall is remodeled.

“This is a living organism. So as we roll it out, and if we see we need to make changes as developments build on the corridor and we see other demands—it’s a work in progress,” she said. “It’s a legacy project that we’re looking at having in Fort Collins for the next 20, 50 100 years hopefully.”

In the coming months as the MAX launches, no detail is too big or small for scrutiny. For example, Transfort’s Timothy Wilder says how bikes are stored on the buses may change. For launch, they’ll be stored vertically from metal hooks that come out from the ceiling of each bus.

How frequently the buses stop at specific stations may also be revised as data collected on board the buses is analyzed. The MAX buses can count the number of people boarding and disembarking at every station.

“Whether we stop at every single station or not—a lot of different characteristics like that get evaluated and tweaked over time just to make the bus more efficient,” said Wilder.

Fort Collins is planning a ribbon cutting ceremony and a number of parties at MAX stations on the May 10 launch date. Details will be released by the city in the coming weeks.