A public-private investment of $3 million for bus stops and a Highway 82 underpass at Willits Town Center is missing one key ingredient — parking for commuters.
Two months after the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority expanded its service to Willits, the owner of the commercial area has closed 30 spaces closest to the bus stop to commuters. Mariner Real Estate Management, the owner, posted signs limiting parking to two hours in those 30 spaces, which are on the eastern end of the Whole Foods Market parking lot. The entire lot is private.
The limit of parking to two hours essentially eliminates use for bus riders who commute to work in Aspen.
“I found out about it from a RFTA customer,” said Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, who is also chairwoman of RFTA’s board of directors. “I would like to know the reasoning behind it.”
The reasoning is simple, said Tim Belinski, Mariner’s representative in Basalt.
“We just need to make sure those spaces turn over for shoppers,” he said. “They were not intended to be park-and-ride spaces.”
The Willits bus stops were built as part of RFTA’s $45 million bus-rapid-transit expansion. The project features more accommodating bus stops, a larger bus fleet, more buses making direct trips between Aspen and towns downvalley and, in many places, expanded parking.
RFTA spent $1 million on the bus stops on the upvalley and downvalley sides of Highway 82 at Willits, according to RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship. In addition, RFTA teamed with the town of Basalt and Mariner to build a pedestrian underpass beneath Highway 82 to serve the stops. The underpass cost about $2.1 million.
Parking was part of the original plan. Ace Lane, who owns property across Highway 82 from Whole Foods, offered 50 spaces as part of a development proposal. However, he placed his plan on the shelf during the recession, and the review is now getting renewed. It could be years before those spaces are available.
Parking also was discussed between RFTA and the owners of Willits, but negotiations have thus far been fruitless. Mariner’s predecessor, Joseph Freed and Associates, offered to sell RFTA the 100-space parking garage beneath Whole Foods, Blankenship said. RFTA declined because the price of between $4 million and $6 million was too steep, he said.
In more recent negotiations, Mariner, which acquired Willits Town Center, offered to lease 50 spaces for $60,000 — a price RFTA found too steep.
Belinski said prohibiting commuters is unrelated to the failed negotiations.
Blankenship said the parking limit would be understandable if transit riders were displacing Willits customers, but he is unaware of evidence that’s taking place. The parking lot for Whole Foods and the adjacent Four Dogs Wine and Liquors rarely fills up. Those spaces aren’t timed.
Vehicles rarely spill over to the parking spaces that commuters have used for the past two months, Belinski acknowledged, but they have to make sure those spots remain available for shoppers in the future. Belinski said the bus stops are vital for Willits, and he believes ridership will be high. RFTA, the town of Basalt and Mariner will have to work on a long-term solution to parking, he said.
Whitsitt said the lack of parking at Willits would pose a greater burden on commuters once ski season starts and more people are heading upvalley to work.
“I would imagine in high season it’s going to be hard to use that (station) unless you live right next door,” she said.
Options exist. The El Jebel park and ride, less than a mile away, has 84 spaces with 50 overflow spaces in a nearby lot.
Blankenship said it was assumed Willits would be a classic transit-oriented-development type of bus stop. Many riders likely will be workers and shoppers at Willits. Blankenship said he has heard anecdotally that some commuters park at Willits after they grab coffee at Starbucks or because they plan to shop at Whole Foods when they get off work. In that way, Willits could be harming some of its shoppers by discouraging commuter parking.
“We understand their position, but it would be nice if they had a little bit more relaxed attitude” until parking patterns can be established, Blankenship said.
RFTA was unaware in advance that the commuter parking would be limited.
“They didn’t talk to us about it,” Blankenship said.
Until a solution is found, commuters such as Barbara Brevetti are paying the price. She said she has used the Willits lot twice per week since it opened in early September. It’s a convenient place to park and catch the bus after working out at a Basalt gym and then going to work at the Aspen Business Center, she said.
She learned Tuesday that the parking spaces closest to the bus station are limited to two hours. She called Mariner and was told the signs were placed there Oct. 24.
“I just don’t understand why parking isn’t provided at a (bus rapid transit) stop,” Brevetti said.