The car rolled up to Swink Hall, an exhibition space at El Paso County Fairgrounds, Calhan, Colorado, on Oct. 18, 2017. A gathering of fewer than 20 representatives of government agencies and non-governmental social service agencies awaited Envida, staff from a Colorado Springs specialized transit agency, so that they could learn about the needs of this rural town of 1,000 people and the surrounding unincorporated county, which holds another 27,000, all without public transportation. Within one year, the Envida staff would be back with regularly scheduled, publicly funded bus service for the first time in decades. Today, however, they just needed to listen.
Helping the Neighbors
What the staff heard about rural needs was compelling:
- Aging plains residents were struggling with remaining in their communities because transportation into Colorado Springs for medical appointments, shopping, and other activities was difficult due to weather, distance, and age-related medical complications.
- School officials shared concerns that students were isolated in the community when their parents left early the morning for employment and did not return until late in the day.
- Work-study programs and internship opportunities through the school were largely unrealized visions for the students.
- Church leaders expressed that parishioners needed help accessing supportive services, and the demand for transportation was overwhelming the community’s heartfelt voluntary efforts to help.
Like many transportation providers across the nation, Envida’s services were open to all who were eligible, but it had never offered public transportation, only specialized. Staff talked with other transportation providers in Southern Colorado and learned that no one had any plans to provide service to the area, and the region had been without regular service for a decade or more. They then looked at regional and state transit improvement plans to discover that transportation officials and political leaders had a vision for rural transportation, but no one was doing anything. An opportunity had suddenly revealed itself.
El Paso County, Colorado, encompasses more than 2,158 square miles, or twice the size of Rhode Island. The western part of the county is extremely mountainous and rises to over 14,000 feet, while the vast eastern plain is an open vast prairie at just about 6,000 feet. Envida is one of several nonprofit transit agencies serving the specialized needs of Colorado Springs, the county seat, which has a population density of 2,242 people per square mile. As the county stretches east, the density thins out to fewer than 20 people per square mile by the time one drives to Calhan, which is less than an hour from the city.
Envida’s challenge was to determine what type of transportation made the most sense to serve this area and how to implement a transit service that would be sustainable. Staff identified a mobility gap of .8, or about 48 unmet daily trips in Calhan alone, and the larger targeted service area revealed as many as 1,369 unmet daily trips.
At issue, however, is that few people live in incorporated towns like Calhan or Ramah. Most live in unincorporated areas where the whole concept of first-mile, last-mile stretches to first 10 miles, last 10 miles, or more. Of course, this makes rural El Paso County no different than any other rural area in America. If Envida could formulate a viable plan, it could potentially be replicated in other counties, in other states, across the country.
Staff examined existing survey data and conducted a new survey with residents to identify their preferred destinations and to determine where best to place bus stops near existing population centers. The wind blows hard on the prairie, and temperatures can drop quickly, so staff also needed to account for sheltered stops. The one constant that residents can depend on, like most rural communities in the country, is a local post office, so Envida established bus stops at the rural post offices where residents could stand inside, away from the cold.
The one constant that residents can depend on, like most rural communities in the country, is a local post office, so Envida established bus stops at the rural post offices where residents could stand inside, away from the cold.
In addition, all along the route, Envida promotes a three-quarter mile deviation for an extra dollar for pre-arranged pick-up and drop-off. By the time Envida was ready with its route, staff had designed a deviated, fixed route of seven stops from Calhan into Colorado Springs along the arterial State Highway 24, terminating at the transfer station for the City of Colorado Springs Mountain Metro Transit, which would allow riders to reach most, if not all, of their destinations in the city. The bus run, dubbed The Calhan Connection, initially ran two days a week, twice a day, but in March 2019 Envida expanded service to Monday through Friday, three times daily.
Building on Relationships
Envida staff would like to say that its success is due to savvy business acumen, cobbling together federal, state, and local funding to acquire a dedicated vehicle and cover operating expenses, hiring a reliably trained driver, and launching an expertly studied transit plan — all within one year’s time. It is all that, but it’s more.
Envida’s first key relationship was forged with employees of El Paso County, who operate the Community Outreach Center at the Fairgrounds. They donated space to house Envida’s bus, they helped spread the word about Envida’s transportation service, and they approved a county development block grant (CDBG) to initially fund the route. Next, Envida invited local residents to help distribute information and talk about the service with their friends and neighbors.
Envida also applied for and received funding through the Colorado Department of Transportation for a dedicated vehicle for the route, as well as FTA 5311 funding to help cover operational costs. Staff also enlisted support from a rural utility to help meet the required government funding match.
In a show of good faith and partnership, Envida staff hired a driver from eastern El Paso County who relates well to the townspeople, and they relate to him. Further, Envida staff spent the entire year attending regular meetings in the county to build relationships and trust with town leaders, service agency representatives, and other members of the community. Envida has invested its resources to support local events and community projects, like a health and wellness fair, the annual Christmas parade, and even a new community marquee slated to be installed by 2020.
Because the area has been without transportation for so long, many of the second- and third-generation residents do not know or understand how to use it or what to expect, so rider education has been an ongoing project. Envida’s driver takes the 10-passenger bus to local gatherings and encourages people to board and check it out. He shows them how the lift works and has them sit in the comfortable seats for a chat about how he operates the route. It helps ease anxiety and builds a personal connection so that people are more apt to ride.
One fear Envida addressed has been what would happen if riders arrived in town and risked missing the bus back home. Envida implemented a sign-up for riders who indicate they need a return trip and where they will be picked up. That way, when the driver gets to the stop, he will call them if they are not there.
The new route has been slow to catch on, but trust and behavior change take time. Residents need to know that Envida is going to be around for the long haul.
One regular rider lives outside Calhan along the route. Initially, she was concerned how she was going to travel several miles to get to the bus stop, but since she was close to the route, Envida deviated to pick her up. Now she rides into town to attend a Silver Sneakers class at the YMCA. “The Envida bus service is a gift to the community of Calhan,” she says. “I’m super-elated and grateful we have such a great service available to many of us who live in the Calhan vicinity.”
Where It All Began
Completed in 1887 with operation beginning in 1888, the Rock Island Railway reached from Rock Island, Illinois, to Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was the heyday of railroads, with lines constructed that would crisscross the country, traveling through what was then called Indian Territory. One of its water stations and later a depot, which still stands today, was established on the eastern plains of Colorado and called Calhan.
The town grew up around the railroad, and the line from Colorado Springs east through Calhan, Colorado, ran until the early 1970s when Rock Island went into bankruptcy. But while it ran, it became a reliable support of the El Paso County Fair, which began in 1905 to celebrate the potato crop. The Fair drew passengers from big city Colorado Springs and small plains communities like Ramah, Simla, Ellicott, Yoder, Rush, and Peyton. In addition to railroad, they came by surrey, Conestoga wagon, covered wagon, horseback, and, eventually, automobile to rural eastern El Paso County to celebrate the potato harvest, and later, 4-H achievements and more.
Like much of rural America, once the railroad stopped, regular connectivity with urban centers would decline, impacting economic viability. Fortunately for Calhan, State Highway 24 from Colorado Springs to U.S. Interstate 70 became a major trucking route, carrying harvested crops, goods, and livestock east, but regular passenger, public transit was relegated to the history books. Sporadic attempts were made to provide transit to the area, but efforts would eventually dry up and blow away like the tumbleweeds on the plains.
Today, Envida’s bus is housed at El Paso County Fairgrounds and leaves Monday through Thursday at 7:30 a.m. for three daily runs. As it courses through town to pick up and drop off riders, it passes by the old Calhan Depot, which the local Rocky Mountain Railroad Heritage Society has acquired and is renovating for a historical landmark and museum, capturing what Calhan was like in the early days of the last century. And it is Envida’s hope that unlike the railroad, it will be the transit solution for generations on the plains yet to come.
Gail Nehls is CEO at Envida, a provider of transportation and home care services to persons with disabilities, the elderly and low-income citizens in the Pikes Peak, Colo. region.