Will Jackson be able to keep its airport shuttle?

After years without a shuttle, there's a cheaper way for locals and visitors to get to and from the airport, but it’s just here for the winter and won’t return without a boost in ridership.
The 53-seat shuttle drops off and picks up passengers outside the Jackson Hole Airport. It's a pilot program and is slated to run through mid-April. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

by | Jan 16, 2024 | Transportation

There is finally a much cheaper way for Jacksonites and visitors to get to and from the airport — a shuttle. But it’s just for this winter and it won’t return if there’s not a boost in ridership. KHOL took a round trip on the shuttle to see how some in the community are feeling about the new airport commute.

The sleek white bus screeched to a halt in front of the Home Ranch lot in downtown Jackson, near the welcome center. It’s fancier than your typical bus, with tinted black windows and a luggage bay underneath.

Shortly after noon in early January, local resident Trevor Brown boarded the heated shuttle wearing a green puffy jacket and airpods in his ears.

But unlike the four other passengers aboard, he didn’t have a suitcase or duffel, and he wasn’t flying out. Like many Jacksonites, Brown wears a lot of hats.

“Bartend, freelance software developer, ski patrol and actually Turo rental, which is why I’m going to the airport right now,” Brown explained.

Turo is a car-sharing company. Brown said, as a side hustle, he drops his truck off at the airport for visitors to borrow during their stay, but he has to find a way to get there and back.

Trevor Brown looks out the window at the Tetons while riding the new airport shuttle in early January. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

Until the START airport shuttle came to town in mid-December, he was bumming the 20-minute ride off his girlfriend or spending money on rideshare apps.

“It’s like $30 to $40 depending on traffic,” he said. “And so, you know, [the bus] kind of cuts the cost in half going up there.”

The shuttle costs $10 each way for adults, picking up passengers at parking lots around downtown Jackson from 5 a.m. till 9 p.m. It then drops off riders like Brown near the airport’s front doors.

A map of the START shuttle’s pick-up and drop-off locations around downtown Jackson — and nearby hotels. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

“I mean, everything else in this town is so expensive,” Brown said. “Keep the bus. We need public transit to and from the airport.”

Use it or lose it

Come mid-April, the shuttle is slated to go away — and it may not come back. 

This pilot program is all about figuring out if there’s actually a need for an airport shuttle in town, according to START transit director Bruce Abel.

“If people don’t ride, it would be an indication that perhaps the demand really doesn’t exist, at least not to the degree that people have articulated,” Abel said.

Sitting in his office near Karns Meadow, Abel said community members have been calling for a shuttle for years — ever since the last bus shut down three years ago — and have been coming up with creative solutions to get to the airport.

“There’s what I’ve seen referred to as the ‘Jackson Hole shuffle,’” Abel said.

Locals often have to score a ride from a family member or friend, have someone come and pick up their car at the airport, risk Uber or Lyft surge pricing or pay roughly 50 bucks for a taxi.

That’s until the Federal Aviation Admiration (FAA) recently stepped in and allowed the Jackson Hole Airport to fund a bus — temporarily. 

“That is not something that the FAA does routinely,” Abel said. “It is not something we would anticipate would happen on an ongoing basis.”

Typically the FAA doesn’t let airports fund off-site transportation, but it is helping fund this pilot program, for now. For shuttle service to continue, officials will need to find other funding sources, and locals and visitors need to prove that they’ll use it.

Abel’s encouraging shuttle users — and non-users — to fill out a survey giving feedback about the bus. He said, so far, about  70 people use the bus every day, and that topped 100 in late December. But an average of 120 riders a day are needed for the program to be a success, he said. 

And if they don’t meet that threshold?

“I think then that the community will need to reevaluate whether or not there is really a demand for public transit service between the town and the airport,” he said.

Flyers wait for transportation in the Jackson Hole Airport lobby. A lot of the visitors took cabs or used rideshare apps, despite sitting next to signs giving information about the low-cost shuttle.(Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

Fierce competition

Some in the community said they aren’t happy with the new shuttle. Troy Mitchell, a taxi driver, said cabs are getting “pinched out.”

“You know, you have five different companies competing for one ride,” Mitchell said. “And the people, of course, when you tell them $10 to town, they’re going to take that. We’re like $45 to town.”

Sitting in his black SUV in the taxi line at the airport, Mitchell said the weather this winter also hasn’t been helping, with fewer visitors coming to ski.

“The competition is fierce, but the snow’s coming, and I think everything’s going to be fine,” he said before the recent storm.

Passengers board the new START shuttle at the Jackson Hole Airport. Some were visitors, while others live locally. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

As Mitchell inched forward in the taxi line, people lined up across the street to board the public shuttle to get back to town. 

That includes a group of 15 people from Houston. They said they were on a work trip and planned to ride snowmobiles in the area.

One member of the group, Juan Hernandez, said they were excited to find the cheap option to get to town. They were staying in Teton Village, but the bus would get them half-way there.

“ We were just walking around and we saw the sign for the shuttle and we scanned it, and we realized, ‘Oh my, that’s in 10 minutes, let’s find the pickup,’” Hernandez said.

As the passengers piled into the bus, paying by app or cash, driver Darcy Thompson said she was looking forward to the ride back to town.

“You have really good views — get paid to see the Tetons everyday,” Thompson said.

And, with that, the bus doors shut, and the passengers were on their way to Jackson, gazing out the windows at the striking mountains cutting across the skyline.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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