The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s expansion hasn’t come without some growing pains.
RFTA’s passenger numbers on regional service on Highway 82 soared in 2013, according to CEO Dan Blankenship. But commuters are having trouble finding spaces to park in some lots, and passengers are finding standing-room-only conditions on some buses at peak commute times, he said.
“We’re going through growing pains,” Blankenship said.
RFTA will make adjustments once there is adequate time to gauge what needs adjusting, he said. RFTA implemented a $46 million expansion in September to create what’s known as a bus-rapid-transit system. It added buses so that service is more frequent. New parking lots and bus stations were added between Glenwood Springs and Buttermilk. WiFi capability was added on buses, real-time information on bus progress is posted at stations, and buses are given priority at traffic signals that were added.
RFTA didn’t have a long time to ease into the expanded schedule. Substantial early-season snow, punctuated by a big dump on Dec. 4, combined with frigid temperatures during the first half of December to send passenger numbers soaring. While dealing with those conditions, RFTA added numerous new, seasonal drivers who were getting used to the equipment, the routes and driving the icy roads, Blankenship said.
“Consequently, it has not been uncommon for buses to run behind schedule, contributing to situations in which there is standing room only during some, but not all, peak-period commuter bus trips,” Blankenship wrote in a memo to RFTA’s board of directors.
RFTA supervisors have tried to ease crowding by adding standby buses when possible.
“Regrettably, and despite RFTA’s best intentions and efforts, it is not always possible to eliminate the potential for standees on some regional commuter bus trips during peak hours,” Blankenship wrote. “When given the choice between standing on a bus that is right in front of them or waiting for the next bus, which might arrive 10 to 30 minutes later, many people prefer to stand.”
The number of passengers on RFTA’s bread-and-butter service between Aspen and Glenwood Springs is up by 149,872 through November compared with the same period in 2012. There were 1.73 million passengers through November 2012 and 1.88 million in 2013. That is an increase of 8.67 percent.
December figures aren’t available yet, but they will reflect a spike in ridership, Blankenship said.
Skier shuttles leased by Aspen Skiing Co. and service within the city of Aspen also were up through November. Summer service to the Maroon Bells dipped slightly after the federal government shutdown affected weekend bus service in September.
All told, RFTA had hauled 3.67 million passengers through November, an increase of nearly 4 percent from the same point in 2012, according to numbers released by the agency.
When asked to give the new and improved RFTA a letter grade, Blankenship said, “We’re in the B-range, maybe a B-plus.”
To try and improve that grade, RFTA is considering adding larger buses to tackle the overflow at peak periods on the busiest days. The dedicated VelociRFTA buses hold 35 passengers. The backup buses hold 57 passengers. However, they don’t operate on cleaner-burning natural gas, and they aren’t lower to the ground, so they take longer to load. Therefore, they will be used at overflow times, but they aren’t viewed as permanent fixtures in bus-rapid-transit service, according to Blankenship.
RFTA also is looking into easing parking shortages at Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, El Jebel and Willits, according to Blankenship. At Glenwood Springs, it will explore leasing part of a parking lot at Walmart. At Carbondale, it will assess properties that are for sale near its main park-and-ride. At El Jebel, it will post signs at its 84-unit lot that make it more clear that 50 overflow spaces are available at the Eagle County government building. At Willits, it’s working with Basalt and the developer to consider leasing some of the 100 spaces in the parking garage beneath Whole Foods.
“We’re going through growing pains.”
RFTA chief executive officer