When Ski Santa Fe opened Thanksgiving Day with a snowpack that was envied by resorts nationwide, skiers were cool to a new shuttle service up the mountain. In fact, in its first weeks of service, the North Central Regional Transit District’s Mountain Trail route drew so few riders that it was on track to barely meet a quarter of its target ridership for the season. Often, the transit district’s Blue Buses would head to the ski basin carrying no passengers.

But in recent weeks, the Mountain Trail route has had a new problem: “NO ROOM!” — as Sue McKelvey said in a Dec. 28 email to The New Mexican.

“Literally, no one at the bus stop (~20 people) could get on the already standing-room-only bus,” McKelvey said in the email. “No rider alert on their webpage. I assumed that they would be sending a second bus. Nope.”

During the holiday week, more than 1,000 people rode the bus to the ski basin.

The transit district responded to McKelvey’s complaint by adding a third weekday Blue Bus to the route by the end of the day. Previously, the route had just two round-trip buses on weekdays and seven on weekends and holidays. The route will also operate on a weekend schedule during spring break, March 7 to 18.

It begins at the South Capitol Rail Runner Station on Alta Vista Street at 8 a.m., and makes another scheduled stop at the Fort Marcy Recreation Complex before heading up Hyde Park Road. The fare is $5 each way — exact change required — but to offset the cost to skiers, Ski Santa Fe offers bus riders a $5 token toward the price of a lift ticket, ski school or food.

The bus route launched in late September, hoping to carry leaf peepers up the mountain to view the golden aspens. But it struggled to draw riders. Fewer than 250 people rode the bus in its first three weeks of service. According to the transit district’s most recent figures, however, ridership has steadily grown throughout the ski season. Nearly 245 people rode the bus in Week 12, and more than 470 in Week 13. And in Week 14 — between Christmas and New Year’s — 1,040 people rode the bus.

McKelvey was one of those holiday riders. She said the bus was so crowded Dec. 28 that her son wasn’t able to board at the Fort Marcy stop. But she was impressed with the transit district’s quick response to her complaint, she said, and she appreciates the service: “My quality of life has certainly improved.”

The Mountain Trail isn’t yet a permanent bus route. The transit district hopes to log 5,000 riders in its trial season, which ends in April. It plans to offer the service again in July and August to carry hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts up the mountain — although, so far no bicycles are allowed on the bus. The outlook has improved for meeting the ridership goal — between the route’s first day, Sept. 26, and Jan. 2, officials counted 2,085 riders.

Jim Nagle, a spokesman for the North Central Regional Transit District, said the agency’s officials will tally the Mountain Trail numbers at the end of its trial and decide whether to make it a permanent service.

Chip Dunahugh hopes they do.

The 49-year-old artist and carpenter bought his first season pass to Ski Santa Fe eight years ago, and now he skis about 60 days each year. On Friday, with his skis over his shoulder, he walked 10 minutes from his home in the Railyard to board the bus at the corner of Manhattan Avenue and Guadalupe Street. It was the beginning of Day 34 on the mountain.

On his ride to the ski basin, he chatted with Mary Nickell, 59, who had purchased lift tickets Tuesday night on a whim and flew out from Dallas with her daughter, 23-year-old Jacqui Nickell. It was their second day riding the bus to the basin, and Mary Nickell wanted to know about a few easy runs down the mountain.

“Off the Millennial, you go left,” Dunahugh said, directing the women to Sunrise, a low-angle and groomed blue-square trail. “You can take Sunrise to Sunset.”

In the back of the bus sat three college-age Texans. Brandon Meyers, 20, Jack Moreno, 19, and Aaron Schroeder, 19, who have known each other since grade school, brought their snowboards from Austin to spend four days of their winter break in Santa Fe.

They had ridden up the mountain the day before on the transit district’s Blue Bus — which was packed, Schroeder said — and they met a man who’d taken the Rail Runner commuter train from Albuquerque.

“We wish we were so close to something like this,” Meyers said. “I’d definitely be doing the same thing.”

Moreno said if the buses are still running next year, he’ll use them. The bus drivers have been great, he added.

“They’ve been on time,” he said. “They’ve driven safely.”

The route has logged one accident so far, but it wasn’t bus driver Steven Gonzalez’s fault, according to a police report and dashboard footage from the bus. Around the time the ski lifts stopped turning on a snowy Dec. 12, a red two-door Toyota sedan slid into Gonzalez’s lane. It struck the side of the bus as Gonzalez, swearing, swerved off the road into the snow. No passengers were on board, and no one was injured.

Bus driver Scott Taglieber, who drove Dunahugh, the Texans and nine others up the mountain Friday morning, said the buses are surprisingly safe. His bus, 599, is rear-wheel drive, but if roads are slick, he can flip a toggle on his dashboard that drops a wheel of chains that spin beneath the bus’ back tires. He’s done that twice, he said, and it worked well.

Taglieber moved to Tesuque several months ago from Pennsylvania. On Friday, he wore two small hoops in his left ear, one gold and the other silver, and a single gold hoop in his right ear. What he enjoys about driving up and down the mountain are the personalities, he said. One of his regular characters is “Chef,” who had been discussing recipes earlier in the week with Mary and Jacqui Nickell.

The talk was too much for Taglieber, who was hungry for lunch, he said, so he told the riders, “People, please. I’m eating a cold bologna sandwich.”

He gets lots of regulars, he said. “So many cool people. I’m concentrated on driving, but you can’t help but listen.”

Taglieber’s bus can hold 31 seated passengers — though two days before Christmas he shuttled 52, he said. Gonzalez’s bus can hold 29, and a third bus, which only runs if the first two fill up, can hold 20.

Only Gonzalez’s bus has racks for skis and snowboards, but Nagle said he expects that by Monday, racks for the other two buses will arrive. He expects a shipment of TV monitors, too.

Transit district officials hope to eventually fit bike racks on the buses, but first they need the U.S. Forest Service’s permission. The Forest Service hasn’t allowed them yet because it’s worried that shuttling bikers up the mountain could stress the already busy Winsor Trail.

Nagle said officials estimate the trial period for the Mountain Trail route will cost more than $160,000, and they expect to earn $55,000 in fares.

After an hour and 12 minutes from his first stop to the ski basin, Taglieber opened his doors, and everyone piled out, shouldering skis and dragging snowboards.

Dunahugh was among the first off the bus. His only complaint was that he often misses the first chair up the mountain when he takes the bus. But he’s happy to have the service.

“It’s been great,” he said, as he pulled on his balaclava, helmet and goggles. “They’ve been talking about doing it for years.”

He zipped his backpack. He shouldered his skis.

“I’m glad to hear that people are finding out about it,” he said of the bus, and he hiked up to the lifts, which by then had been spinning for at least 15 minutes.

Dan Schwartz can be reached at 428-7626 or dschwartz@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @nmdanschwartz.

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