High gas prices, congestion and global warming have made bus service in the environmentally conscious Roaring Fork Valley more popular — maybe too popular.

Thirteen preschoolers unknowingly got caught in policies aimed at accommodating more commuters when a driver asked a sheriff's deputy to kick the kids off her bus last week.

The driver wouldn't move for 20 minutes until Deputy Rob Lawson arrived, Lawson felt uncomfortable asking the kids to leave, and he ended up giving the kids stickers to make them feel better.

The trouble began when the 13 preschoolers and their three teachers got on the bus to go from Basalt to El Jebel before noon March 20. The driver told Lawson the children hadn't paid fares, Eagle County sheriff's officials said.

Usually, children 5 and under ride free, making the buses popular with preschools taking summer and spring outings.

Last summer, partly to limit buses from being overtaken by preschoolers during the busy rush hour, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority started requiring those under 5 to pay $1 for rides if they were in groups of more than 10, CEO Dan Blankenship said.

"We've seen a surge in ridership. We're challenged to keep pace with it," he said.

Lawson encouraged the driver to resolve the dispute last week without booting the kids, but she refused to drive them if they didn't pay their fares, sheriff's officials said.

"In her defense, she was trying to uphold our policy," Blankenship said. "But we perhaps didn't serve her well by giving her more support and training to understand how this situation could've been handled a little differently."

RFTA sent another bus to take the kids.

RFTA apologized publicly and to the children's parents. Officials will meet with preschools April 16 to discuss fare policies.

Blankenship said the agency is happy to carry preschoolers, who may one day ride the bus as adults and do their part to decrease traffic and pollution.

"We don't like to do things like shooting ourselves in the foot if we can avoid it," Blankenship said.