Forecast: 1.2M MAX riders in first year

The Mason Corridor MAX Bus Rapid Transit system could see as many as 1.25 million riders in its first year — more than double the ridership figures for the two lines it will replace.

The five-mile project has been in the works since the 1990s and is set to begin service in 2014, with eight buses, each worth $840,000, making stops every half-mile between Harmony Road and the Transit Center downtown.

Kurt Ravenschlag, general manager for Transfort, the transit agency that is building and will oversee MAX, said the ridership formula — called the Travel Demand Model — is used nationwide.

The city was required to use this model in order to qualify for the Federal Transportation Administration grant it received to fund the project. Fort Collins received a $54.5 million grant from the FTA in May, the last piece in the funding for the $87 million project.

As ambitious as the 1.25 million figure might sound, the Demand Model Process determines ridership based on the careful consideration of a number of factors.

The process begins with determining the number of trips taken in an area in a given day. Information from land-use, population and economic forecasts is incorporated to estimate how many “person trips” will be made in an area.

The next step determines “trip distribution,” which can be thought of as the process by which a traveler decides where to go to meet a given need, according to the Center for Urban Transportation Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

To configure distribution, something called the “gravity model” is applied, factoring in the number of attractions in a given area — including schools, museums, grocery stores — and the distances between them.

Perhaps the most critical step in the process is determining “mode choice,” or which trips are made using which types of transportation, be it transit, carpool or by simply driving somewhere.

This step takes into consideration travel time, cost and convenience of a mode of transportation between an origin and a destination, and each factor is weighted by importance to travelers.

A “mode bias factor” is also incorporated to accommodate for things like privacy and comfort when traveling.

The final step is “traffic assignment,” which uses all of the data compiled in the first three steps, plus considers congestion and time of day to determine which specific path travelers will use to get from their origin to their destination.

For Fort Collins’ MAX system, all of this boiled down to an estimated 1.25 million riders in the first year of operation, a number that Ravenschlag thinks is realistic.

The current Transfort system sees 2.2 million riders per year, Ravenschlag said. Two Transfort routes, operating along College Avenue and between CSU and downtown Fort Collins, will cease operation once MAX begins running.

Keeping those two Transfort routes would mean redundancy in the system, Ravenschlag said. The rest of Transfort’s routes, which stretch far beyond the reach of MAX, will remain in operation.

The College Avenue route is the most-ridden in the city, according to Ravenschlag, because it runs through the city’s workforce and residential center, and the route that moves between CSU and downtown is popular with both students and faculty.

In 2011, Route 1, which runs from Front Range Community College along College Avenue to the downtown Transit Center, carried just over 329,000 riders. That number has increased by 4.4 percent so far in 2012.

Route 15, which runs between CSU and the Transit Center, carried 110,950 riders in 2011 and is on pace with that number so far this year.

These numbers are far lower than the projected MAX ridership, but Ravenschlag said that because MAX will tap into a new market, the projections are expected be on target.

This market will include a lot of CSU students and faculty, Ravenschlag said, especially because MAX will connect the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital with the rest of campus.

Ravenschlag expects that new development taking place in midtown will also bump up ridership. Two student housing projects are under construction right now: The Commons and The Grove, which together will add 1,000 beds to the area.

Ravenschlag anticipates that the MAX system will be even more heavily ridden than the two existing routes, because of the new system’s convenience. MAX was engineered to provide both maximum convenience to riders as well as speed of travel.

Many of the features of the MAX buses and route are made to speed up the trip as much as possible. To get from the route’s southernmost point near Harmony Road to the downtown Transit Center will take about 20 minutes.

Rides of a similar distance on Tranfort buses can take 30 minutes or more, because the stops are closer together than MAX stops will be and Transfort buses travel with regular vehicle traffic.

MAX buses will travel on dedicated “guideways” for the majority of the route, only entering traffic on College Avenue twice for short distances.

Beyond the first year, Ravenschlag’s goal is to increase ridership by 5 percent, or 62,800 riders every year, but he expects that the increases will be even greater.

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Molly Armbrister covers real estate, banking and health care for the Northern Colorado Business Report. She can be reached at 970-232-3139, marmbrister@ncbr.com or twitter.com/MArmbristerNCBR
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