Editor’s note: “Bringing it Home” runs Saturdays in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
People who think the Roaring Fork Valley’s bus system is a waste of public money aren’t looking at the big picture, according to a Denver-based conservation group.
The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, or SWEEP, is using the valley’s bus system as a poster child for how western states should address traffic congestion.
SWEEP conducted a study that showed the bus system is saving Aspen as much as $14 million per year by reducing the need for parking and associated infrastructure. The study determined Aspen would need to build three parking structures of 480 spaces each to deal with increased traffic without the bus system.
“If land costs are fully borne by the garage, annualized costs would be $13.8 million,” the study said. If the land costs were absorbed by ground-level commercial or residential development, the annual cost could be reduced to $3.3 million for three structures.
About 4,000 people per day use Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses to get to work during peak winter and summer seasons, Salisbury said. If buses weren’t an option, more than 1,000 additional vehicles would attempt to drive to Aspen every day, he said.
It doesn’t take a study to realize the additional traffic would choke the town. But SWEEP’s study goes beyond the intuitive and tries to calculate the economic benefit of RFTA to the local economy. The increased employee access to jobs for buses provides a staggering $43 million boost, according to SWEEP.
“A very high percentage of people commute,” Salisbury said. “If transit didn’t exist, about 15 percent of commuters wouldn’t be able to get to their jobs.”
The study said RFTA’s surveys indicate that 68 percent of riders use the system to commute to work. Based on the average income of those riders, the total annual wages they earn is $140 million.
The study authors used transit industry standards to determine that about 15 percent of the riders — about 1,300 daily — wouldn’t be able to get to their jobs without buses. They don’t have personal vehicles, and other travel alternatives aren’t available to them. That would result in a loss of $43 million in annual wages, the study said.
Some of the lost wages would be offset when other people filled jobs, the study acknowledged, but the lack of a transit system would create hardships for employers.
“Without transit it would be very difficult for many of those jobs to be filled, which could contribute to higher labor costs and the need for more affordable housing closer to employment centers,” the study said.
SWEEP didn’t undertake the study just so RFTA could crow about the results. It will use the results to try to convince decision-makers in seven western states that an investment in public transit is a sound public policy, according to Salisbury. The organization promotes energy efficiency in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in addition to Colorado. The transportation branch of the organization promotes the implementation of policies that achieve energy savings and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Salisbury said there is an “unfortunate perception” among many policy makers that transit “is a waste of money.” The RFTA study shows that transit makes sense even in rural areas, he said. It returns benefits to the community.
RFTA’s service spans 68 miles, from Aspen to Rifle. Its service area includes 10 towns and three counties. The estimated population of the service area is 66,000.
RFTA’s rider surveys indicate 6,729 people commute daily to and from work on a bus. For 2012, the survey showed that about 68 percent of 3.9 million rides were people commuting to or from work, according to Jason White, RFTA assistant planner.
The agency received $9.94 million in taxes in 2011 and collected $3.58 million in fares. That’s a local investment of $13.52 million in transit.
RFTA completed a $46 million expansion in September, with more than half coming through a federal grant. The agency added more direct buses between Aspen and towns downvalley. The agency is trying to reduce travel times and improve the comfort of its stations and buses to compete more effectively against private vehicles.
Some of RFTA’s benefits cannot be described in dollars. The valley would be a much more congested place with the bus service. Some people would consider the reduced congestion invaluable.
The SWEEP study determined bus availability reduces the number of miles driven per year by about 19.6 million. The American Public Transportation Association uses a standard figure of 1 mile of transit travel replaces one-third of a mile of private vehicle travel.
The reduced miles driven saves 953,000 gallons of gas worth, at this time, about $3.3 million.
The study gets into also painful detail on the methodology used to calculate the benefits of RFTA and the cost to Aspen without a bus system. The study is available online at http://www.swenergy.org/publications/documents/Transit_Benefits_Colorado_Sept_2013.pdf.
Salisbury said he was surprised at RFTA’s economic benefits for the valley while working on the study.
“It struck me what a cornerstone of the economy it must be out there,” he said.
“Without transit it would be very difficult for many of those jobs to be filled, which could contribute to higher labor costs and the need for more affordable housing closer to employment centers.”
Southwest Energy Efficiency Project study