On a Friday morning in June, you could count the number of riders on Jackson’s town shuttle on two hands. The bus seats fewer than 30 people, but it was still only about a third full. Meanwhile, summertime traffic had set in, and the bus was squeezing between cars to get through the famous Jackson Town Square.
Jackson’s congestion during tourist season has long been an issue. The Southern Teton Area Rapid Transit bus, or START, launched in the 1980s to shuttle people to the ski area Teton Village. Since then it has become the county’s main tool for keeping cars off the road.
“The traffic situation in Teton County is out of control right now, and it’s not getting any better,” said Greg Epstein, a Teton County Commissioner.
In the county’s Integrated Transportation Plan, traffic was predicted to increase by nearly 30 percent if nothing was done to draw people to public transit. Epstein says START could be a catalyst in solving other issues important to the community, such as reducing carbon emissions and protecting wildlife from vehicles. The county has been trying to boost alternative modes of transport in the valley, which sees more visitors every year, but Epstein said it’s been difficult to change people’s habits.
“People like to do the ‘Wyoming carpool’ - one person per car,” Epstein said. “People are attached to their vehicles and [they] want to get where they need to go conveniently, so it really asks for serious behavior change, and that’s tricky.”
START’s success depends on who you ask. All of the routes saw more riders than ever last winter, particularly along the way to Teton Village. Epstein said the village incentivized people to ride by charging more for parking. The bus also takes commuters to nearby towns like Victor, Idaho, where many Jackson workers find cheaper housing. And the town shuttle provides rides around Jackson or to Wilson free of charge.
Rider Herman Rodriguez said he has been riding START for years, to and from his night shift at a local hotel.
“I take it every day to work or to the library and home,” Rodriguez said.
Not everybody is enthused about the bus. Bob Culver is a local Tea Party member who campaigned against the START ballot issues that failed this spring. He said START is not working.
“The type of mass transit system they want to build here is probably not a good fit,” Culver said. “I don’t know what percentage of people think they can even use mass transit to get from, say, home to work to shopping and back, but, I’m thinking it’s pretty small.”
To Culver, the mere fact that people voted down issues with START in the name proved that it’s wildly unpopular.
“All three of those [ballot proposals] were defeated,” he said. “And the name START seems to have been the kiss of death for these programs even though they weren’t really for START buses, but some of them were for maintenance and housing facilities.”
Culver publicly criticized most of the items of the ballot as fiscally irresponsible, because, he said, they funded big construction projects that would later need to be maintained. One of the proposals was to construct a maintenance building for all of the town’s vehicles by the bus barn. Another would have used nearby land to house town employees.
The third would have paid for new buses, which START operations manager Darren Brugman said they need.
“The bus manufacturer is no longer in business, and we cannot find parts, so we are struggling to figure out how we can replace at least eight vehicles,” Brugman said.
County Commissioner Epstein said they will try to bring the ballot issues back, but that they clearly need to improve START’s image.
“A lot of people continue to think that START bus runs empty,” Epstein said. “It’s just the word on the street. And mainly they’re talking about this town shuttle.”
As the Friday morning bus shows, START doesn’t quite run empty, but Epstein said there are some routes that may be unnecessary and some tweaks that would make the system more convenient. A new committee will begin studying this and other issues on July 11. It will also work with local employers to try to make the service more popular.
“So an employer could potentially be the hospital,” Epstein said. “Could we match up more commuter bus service to their shift changes?”
On the bus, Herman Rodriguez said the bus matches his shifts okay. The one recommendation he would make to the committee is to help visitors learn how the bus system works and where it goes.
“For the local, we finally understand where they go and what bus we must be taking, but for the tourists, it’s complex,” Rodriguez said.
So despite being in business for decades, START supporters still have a lot of work to do.