Beppe Amodio, a 25-year-old ski technician at Nomad Sports, tends to ride the START bus to and from work.
But this winter the pandemic, and the changes to public transit that have resulted, have thrown a wrench in his rhythm.
When he finished his shift around 2 p.m. Thursday he grabbed his ski gear and took a few laps. When he tried to catch a bus afterward he ran into an obstacle. Many obstacles.
“I went to go get on the bus back to Stilson, and there were like over 200 people out there waiting,” he said. “I didn’t want to go be in a crowd that big because of COVID.”
He went back into Nomad, worked on his personal skis for about an hour, then waited for another hour and a half and ended up not even catching a bus. Instead he got a ride back to Stilson with his co-worker.
“People were there for just way too long, and when a bus did come everyone was crowding up like sardines, just shoulder to shoulder trying to squeeze on,” he said. That, he felt, was counterproductive to the other COVID-19 protocols in place in Jackson Hole.
Issues like Amodio’s have been on officials’ minds for a while. At last week’s regular meeting the Teton County Board of County Commissioners turned attention to a proposal from START to increase service, citing concerns about a potential surge in visitation over the upcoming holidays. START’s service levels had been cut earlier this year in COVID-19 budget cuts, but after the County Commission and Jackson Town Council, which jointly oversee the bus service, approved switching up the route structure and funneling some more money into the agency, START Director Darren Brugmann said his department would be able to operate at a level similar to years past. But new state health orders reduced passenger capacity on START buses from 30 to 18 people.
Decreased capacity meant more trips to move the same number of people. But the number of buses stayed roughly the same, capping START’s ability to move people around the valley and leading to problems like those seen by Amodio, who has also shown up at Stilson 30 or 40 minutes before his shift starts only to see three full buses go by without stopping, making him late for work.
Mary Kate Buckley, president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, told the Jackson Town Council on Monday that she’d spoken with a START bus driver who runs in-town routes who told her that his bus — like all START buses, running at 25% of maximum capacity — was full from his first pickup point at Miller Park, so he “just didn’t bother to stop at the other stops,” leaving those people to wait for a subsequent bus that may or may not already be at capacity.
All of that, coupled with press releases distributed in the past week announcing that four people who had ridden the START bus tested positive for COVID-19, made some people who spoke with the News&Guide Tuesday leery of taking the bus to Teton Village.
START is not the only way for people to get there, however. People can drive, pay to park in either the paid lot by the Aerial Tram or carpool with two others and park for free in the Ranch Lot. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has also opened up a lot for employees who carpool, and funded a shuttle for employees to and from Stilson. The Teton Village Association likewise runs shuttles to and from Stilson and has bumped the number of those vehicles from two to four this year.
Teton Village Association Executive Director Melissa Turley said her organization, which manages the parking lots, did not have a conversation about reducing the price of parking but did choose not to raise prices this year, knowing there would be extra demand.
Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond has gone skiing at the resort and ridden the START bus, but she picked an off-peak time to do so. She said, however, that she doesn’t have enough data at present to say whether riding the bus is safe.
“We’re open for business, so people need to make choices about what their risk tolerance is,” Pond said, comparing riding the bus favorably to going to a restaurant. “People are wearing a mask the entire time, versus if you go to a restaurant you’re 6 feet away from somebody from another table, but everybody’s unmasked when they’re eating and drinking.”
She said she was happy with the precautions START has taken so far.
With the holidays right around the corner, the Town Council and County Commission voted Monday and Tuesday to increase service, hiring Salt Lake Express to provide additional buses during peak hours: 5 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 7 p.m. daily to Teton Village.
The Town Council’s approval, which came 4-1 Monday with outgoing Councilor Jim Stanford opposed, came with one significant caveat: that Teton County, not the town, pay the $281,000 for extra service. The town and county usually split START expenditures 45-55.
Benny Wilson, who spoke during the Monday meeting, urged the council to approve the additional funding both for Teton Village employees and visitors.
“There’s going to be a lot of tourists that show up in this town, and they’re going to say, ‘Screw Jackson Hole; they have a sh---y bus system that isn’t working right now.’ ”
Councilor Arne Jorgensen said Jackson was facing a “budget crisis.” Stanford and others argued that Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the Teton Village Association and other village businesses need to pay more to transport people to and from the resort area.
“START service to Teton Village costs us more than $2.4 million each year,” Stanford said Monday. “That is the single most expensive program of the entire town of Jackson budget. People would like to see a greater level of service. But ... who is going to pay for it?”
The answer, for now, is the County Commission, which was less than pleased about the town’s actions the following morning.
“What’s the town’s intent?” Commissioner Greg Epstein asked. “Are they looking to stash their portion away?”
He and other commissioners argued that the funding question was less important than addressing the crowding issues on the bus and decided to pony up the $281,000. They also laid the groundwork for requesting a variance from state health orders — something Teton District Health Officer Travis Riddell would have to request of State Health Officer Alexia Harrist — to allow increased capacity on the buses.
Later that day, Teton Village Association and resort officials praised the move but said more might be needed.
“I have faith that it will definitely help,” Turley told the News&Guide. “Being able to carry more riders will be a good thing. I’m not sure that it will solve all of the problems.”
She thought expanded capacity would help it further.
Tyler Lamotte, the resort’s chief brand officer, said how helpful the additional buses would be would depend on when they arrive: “Obviously, we want them as soon as possible because the busy season is already upon us.”
Meanwhile, people are still trying to get to the resort to ski and, like Pond said, have different risk tolerances.
Fin Stinson and Jeremiah Bressler, both locals and both 17, were grudgingly getting on the bus Tuesday morning at Stilson after their third passenger dropped out.
“That’s probably the hardest thing,” Bressler said. “It’s impossible to find a third person to go with you with like all the safety precautions, so you end up having to ride the bus either way.”
But Angie Hellstern, 38, who was visiting from Colorado and also at Stilson, was happy to have the bus as an option.
“We’re pretty casual about everything,” she said. “We still are respectful, and when people ask us to wear a mask we do.”