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Bandelier Shuttle rides again

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By Arin McKenna

After a test run last October that exceeded all expectations, Los Alamos County and Bandelier National Monument are launching a three-year trial of the Bandelier Shuttle. The tourist attraction will become a "car-free park" from June 1 through November 30, with access provided by the free shuttle service.

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“I’m very excited. I feel this shuttle system is the future for Bandelier,” Bandelier Superintendent Jason Lott said. “Even though this is only a three year trial, I believe it will be very successful for both Los Alamos and for the park, and I think at the end of three years there will be real interest in seeing it put in place as a permanent fixture.”

More than 9,000 people were shuttled to the park last October, and traffic at the White Rock visitor center exploded. Total traffic for both the White Rock and Los Alamos visitor centers combined was 1,223 in 2010. In contrast, White Rock alone had 3,126 visitors last October.

Council approved funding for the project in this year’s budget hearings. Bandelier will contribute $150,000 each year. The allotted budget is:

· FY2012 (ends June 30): $264,000 includes startup costs for training new employees, creating signage and purchasing an additional vehicle. The county’s contribution is $114,000 after the Bandelier funding.

· FY2013: $590,000, with the county contributing $440,000. The FY2014 is predicted to be similar.

Based on Bandelier visitation records, ridership is expected to increase this year, so shuttle frequency is increasing to meet that need. Instead of running every thirty minutes, shuttles will depart every 20 minutes during the week, and every 15 minutes on weekends. (From 9 a.m.–10 a.m., Monday–Friday and 9 a.m.–10:30 a.m. on weekends shuttles run every 30 minutes.) The last shuttle out of the park departs at 6 p.m. daily.

Visitors may access the park in their own vehicles from 5 p.m. until sunset, but in order to assure the Frijoles Canyon parking area is clear for the shuttles, early morning access will not be allowed. Those wishing to hike early in the day may park at the amphitheater and hike into the canyon on the Frey trail.

All shuttles are fully ADA compliant, but handicapped visitors may also drive their own vehicles to Frijoles Canyon. Bicyclists and backcountry campers will also be allowed to park in the canyon. Tour buses and school buses may drop their group at the Bandelier visitor center and wait for them in the amphitheater parking.

Staff from Atomic City Transit (ATC), Bandelier and the Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corporation (LACDC) worked together on the project.

“The collaboration effort has been very wonderful. Everyone is very excited, and I think this will achieve the results the council wanted,” said Atomic City Transit Management Analyst Jill Caruthers.

The new shuttle service is critical for Bandelier. Due to the danger of flooding and reduced parking since the Las Conchas fire, the park will be unable to accommodate the usual number of automobiles for the next three years. But the county and the LACDC are working to take full advantage of the system.

All ACT shuttle drivers, not just those designated for Bandelier, have undergone extensive training to prepare them to be “ambassadors” for the community. 

“We’re really seeing them as auxiliary visitor orientation people,” said LACDC Member Services Coordinator Katy Korkos, who developed the training program.

The training is based on an online “ambassador training” program (geared toward hotel and restaurant employees) the Los Alamos Meeting and Visitor Bureau plans to launch soon.

ATC drivers received more hands-on experience. They visited Bandelier, museums and other points of interest and took the Historic District Walking Tour. Georgia Strickfaden, owner of Buffalo Tours, provided a bus orientation, which included businesses of interest to tourists.

“A lot of information came out of our trial run last fall. We learned a lot about the questions and needs of the visitors, and we’ve built that into everything we do,” said LACDC Executive Director Kevin Holsapple. “The drivers are a sharp set of people and very interested in being prepared to serve in the role.”

Korkos also gleaned information from the drivers’ experience. “During the training we’ve been asking the shuttle drivers for their stories of driving the Bandelier shuttle last year, such as what were the most frequent questions they got, so we’re able to develop materials based on that,” Korkos said.

The most frequent question was not where to buy coffee or lunch; it was whether the (Manhattan Project) bomb had been tested at Ashley Pond.

In addition to having knowledgeable drivers, ATC plans to equip all the vehicles to show videos of Bandelier on the way into the park and highlights of Los Alamos County on the trip back. Volunteers will also ride many of the buses to answer visitors’ questions.

Drivers will hand every rider a Los Alamos visitors guide stuffed with two new rack cards, one listing shopping venues and another for dining and treats.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity to reach these visitors we’ve never been able to reach before because they’re isolated in their cars. This is a real opportunity to tell them about what is in Los Alamos,” Korkos said.

LACDC is looking at ways the increased traffic can benefit White Rock. The Los Alamos Creative District currently is soliciting applications for an outdoor artist and artisans market. If enough interest is generated, the market will be every Sunday at The Hive parking lot between June and October.

Bandelier is also making preparations to improve the visitor experience. Picnic tables have been moved into the Frijoles parking island area so visitors may bring their coolers on the bus and picnic. Lott is also making preparations to allow visitors safe access to the canyon during monsoon season (follow the Los Alamos Monitorto learn more).

“Not only is this shuttle allowing the park to accommodate visitors, it will be a better visitor experience: no barking dogs, slamming doors, engines idling, car alarms. People will be able to hear the birds singing and it will feel really open.” Lott said. “That’s one thing we really noticed last year, it’s so much more peaceful.”

 The shuttle stop is located on the northeast corner of N.M. 4 and Rover Boulevard. The White Rock Visitor Center is anticipated to open sometime in September, after improvements on N.M. 4 have been completed, at which time the entire operation will relocate there.