The expansion of the Roaring Fork Valley’s acclaimed bus system this month could increase ridership on Highway 82 corridor service by 300,000 annually within a couple of years, according to the head of the agency.
But it is the potential enhancement of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s legacy rather than more riders that has CEO Dan Blankenship most excited about the expansion.
Blankenship’s vision — shared with other members of the management team and the board of directors — is that RFTA’s new bus-rapid-transit system will encourage more residents to pursue alternative transportation on a broader scale. He envisions people riding their bicycles or walking to the bus stops that will feature much more frequent, fast and direct service between the towns of the Roaring Fork Valley. Residents will be taking action to counter congestion on the streets and in their arteries.
There is a wave in major U.S. cities and across Europe and Asia to avoid using private vehicles altogether.
“We want to tap into that wave but promote it even more,” Blankenship said.
RFTA’s history shows that improvements to the bus system trigger increases in ridership. RFTA doubled its service between 1994 and 1996 and saw ridership increase by 1.1 million rides, according to Blankenship.
With the bus-rapid-transit expansion, he believes the ridership on regional service could grow by as much as 30 percent. That includes the main-line service along the Highway 82 corridor and between Aspen and Snowmass Village.
On the Highway 82 service between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, RFTA hauled 1.82 million passengers in 2008, a record year for ridership. In 2012, the ridership was down about 16 percent, or 300,000. Blankenship expects to recoup those numbers within a couple of years.
RFTA’s expansion comes at a price of $46.2 million. The federal government provided a grant of $25 million. Voters between Aspen and New Castle approved a sales tax increase that raised most of the remainder.
The expansion offers 13 new bus stations throughout the valley. Major new stations were built in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, El Jebel, Willits and Basalt. They will be much more comfortable for bus riders and feature real-time technology that will let riders know where the buses are at any given time. The stations also will feature ticket-vending machines designed to decrease the time for boarding.
RFTA purchased 18 additional buses for the expanded service. Those buses operate on compressed natural gas. (Another four buses operating on the alternative energy were purchased separately to replace part of the existing fleet.)
With the additional buses, RFTA will offer service every 10 minutes during peak seasons during the morning and afternoon commutes, Blankenship said. Service in Glenwood Springs will start at 4:53 a.m. and continue every 10 minutes until 8:15 a.m.
The new service is dubbed VelociRFTA and features a dinosaur logo.
In the afternoon, the expansion will allow RFTA to run buses every 10 minutes starting at 2:15 p.m. in Aspen and continuing until 6:30 p.m.
During the midday, buses will travel every 15 minutes — a greater frequency than now available. Local buses, which go through the core of Carbondale, Blue Lake and Basalt, will still operate every 30 minutes.
“We’ve trained people to be at the bus stops twice an hour,” Blankenship said, noting that riders will have more options, so rides might be spread out over greater times.
The system as a whole was designed to help the buses compete more favorably against private vehicles. There will be more comfort at the stations and in the buses. People will have more options for rides. The bus-rapid-transit buses will make fewer stops, which reduces travel time.
“It’s designed to attract people who have a choice,” Blankenship said.
One key piece of the project won’t be completed by Tuesday’s grand opening. The bus stations and pedestrian underpass of Highway 82 at the Aspen Business Center are behind schedule, according to RFTA officials.
Flatiron Construction was five to six weeks behind schedule as of the second week of August, according to a RFTA staff memo. The company has placed more workers on the job and says it is making up time, according to Blankenship. That part of the project is supposed to be completed by late November.
Two factors are driving the company to try to speed up its work. First, the Colorado Department of Transportation won’t allow the detour necessary for the work to linger beyond late October or early November, Blankenship said. In addition, Flatiron faces financial penalties of $3,000 per day if it does complete the project before winter, he said.
Blankenship said RFTA itself would experiment this fall to dial in its expanded service.
“It is a work in progress, and we’re going to be trying new things,” he said.
Passengers who want to transport their bikes will need to be patient. Current buses have racks that carry four bikes. The new buses carry only two, but they operate a lot more frequently. In addition, during the warm-weather months, RFTA will operate its “bike express” bus more often as patterns develop, according to Blankenship. That bus has 10 racks inside the bus and four outside. It has seats for 17 passengers.
RFTA’s bus service will be free Tuesday through Friday. In addition, the public is invited to a ribbon cutting at the Glenwood Springs bus-rapid-transit station at 27th Street at 8 a.m. Tuesday and to a barbecue at the Willits station by Whole Foods from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday.