ASPEN - Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus riders won't see the formal debut of the agency's rapid-transit service for more than a year, but already commuters who ride RFTA regularly are getting a taste of what's to come - talking buses, for example.
Construction has begun on some of the 13 stations that will be part of RFTA's rapid-transit service, to be called VelociRFTA. The buses themselves are being prepared for the service as RFTA puts the new system in place in phases.
When the system is officially put into service in the fall of 2013, RFTA hopes to have worked out some of the potential kinks, according to CEO Dan Blankenship. That's because components of the technological upgrades that are key to the system are going in now.
"This process is a major, major effort on our part to upgrade the technology we use at RFTA," Blankenship said.
The technology, already in use with other bus systems, is on the "leading edge" and a big advance for RFTA, he said.
"It gives us some capabilities we've never had before," Blankenship said.
RFTA is currently converting its fleet of about 90 buses to add features such as an LED display at the front of the bus that lights up with the name of the next stop on the route, plus a recorded voice (a man's) that announces the next stop in advance. A woman's voice announces, "Stop requested," when a passenger either pulls the cord or pushes the button for a particular stop. Currently, drivers may or may not announce stops on a route.
Technicians are installing the new features on about three buses per day, Blankenship said. Commuters traveling up and down the highway corridor have begun to encounter buses with the upgrades.
Eventually, the city buses in Glenwood Springs and Aspen will have the upgrades, too, according to Blankenship. A passenger with a sight or hearing impairment, and those who are unfamiliar with either the Roaring Fork Valley or RFTA routes, will have audio and visual cues to help them find their way by bus.
Fare-box upgrades also are coming, and the punch pass - a mainstay for many RFTA commuters - will be phased out this fall. Instead, passengers will use a "stored-value card" that will subtract value from the card with each swipe at the fare box, eliminating the time-consuming process of dealing with punch passes. Currently, a bus driver armed with a hand-held hole punch dings each passenger's punch pass. The longer the trip, the higher the fare and the more holes that are punched in the card.
Eliminating punch cards is one of the ways VelociRFTA is expected to speed up travel times.
Also this fall, RFTA plans to begin offering 30-day passes. They will be good for as many trips as the card holder wants to make for a consecutive 30-day period, Blankenship said.
"We're going to try these things out and see what happens," he said.
RFTA also currently offers monthly and season passes for riders.
The ability to take cash fares will not be eliminated with VelociRFTA, as that is the most logical option for some riders, even though feeding dollars one by one into a fare box takes time, Blankenship said.
"We will always be in the situation where we're going to need to take cash," he predicted.
VelociRFTA riders will, however, be able to purchase a pass at the stations, an option that makes riding the bus less expensive and more convenient than using cash.
Fare increases are not planned as part of the implementation of VelociRFTA, Blankenship added.
For RFTA, the upgrades mean the agency's operations and maintenance staff can track the movements of every bus through a GPS system, track how many people are on each bus and even determine if a bus is going faster than the posted speed limit at a particular location. Mechanics will be able to troubleshoot mechanical trouble on a bus from afar with the computerized system.
Better tracking of buses means VelociRFTA stations will offer real-time arrival information, so riders will know how soon the next bus will pull up.
The $42.6 million VelociRFTA system will feature 22 new, low-floor buses (no steps to enter or exit the vehicle - the floor will be level with the station platform) that will run on compressed natural gas. RFTA is now installing a compressed-natural-gas fueling station at its Glenwood Springs maintenance facility. Most of the new buses - 18 of them - won't be delivered until June, but the agency will get four replacement buses in January, funded in part through a grant, that will run on compressed natural gas. They will give the agency about six months to work with the new technology before the bulk of the VelociRFTA fleet arrives.
"The beauty of it is that we planned the implementation to give ourselves enough time to work out the bugs," Blankenship said.
The 22 buses that run on compressed natural gas will be the VelociRFTA fleet, though all of RFTA's buses are seeing some compatible upgrades in technology, such as the new on-board audio/visual system.
VelociRFTA is described as a rubber-tired transit system that functions much like a commuter train, speeding up travel times between stations. The 13 stations will be constructed in eight locations to serve both upvalley and downvalley travel - at Buttermilk, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, Brush Creek intercept lot, Basalt, Willits, El Jebel, Carbondale and South Glenwood Springs.
The project also includes the addition of 118 bike racks and 270 parking spaces at park-and-ride lots along the route. In addition to real-time bus information, the stations will offer free Wi-Fi and updated shelters, according to RFTA.