Aspen-area bus ridership flat despite big investment, strong economy | AspenTimes.com

Aspen-area bus ridership flat despite big investment, strong economy

Riders board a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus Wednesday. Ridership is down about 1 percent in 2015 through August compared to last year. RFTA identified lower fuel costs and mild weather last winter as factors.

Ridership on the public buses serving the Roaring Fork Valley was down about 1 percent through August compared with last year despite a strong economy and a $50 million expansion of the system two years ago.

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority CEO Dan Blankenship reported in a memo to the agency's board of directors that ridership was at 3,521,565 this year at the end of August. That was down 25,311 passengers from last year over the same period.

Blankenship said in an interview that he had two theories on why ridership is flat.

"Fuel prices have been lower, and we had a real mild winter," he said. Both factors induced people to drive personal vehicles more often. When commuters don't have to deal with icy conditions, they tend to drive.

Lower gas prices in the Roaring Fork Valley are always a relative thing. While they generally aren't as low as almost everywhere else in the state, according to GasBuddy.com, the prices are lower than they were in the valley a year ago.

RFTA thought it set a ridership record last year by topping 4.9 million passengers on all routes. However, Blankenship said the ridership was revised after further number-crunching to about 4.75 million. That fell short of the record in 2008.

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Record or not, 2014 was a strong year, so this year's performance is being compared to one of RFTA's best. Blankenship had said at the start of the year that it appeared RFTA could break the 5 million mark this year, but now that seems out of reach.

Several core segments of ridership are down so far. Ridership in Aspen is down by 45,861 passengers, or 5.63 percent. Ridership in Glenwood Springs is off 7,738 passengers, or 5.32 percent, from last year.

Even the number of passengers on free skier shuttles was down. There were 441,194 riders during the winter months this year compared with 449,187 the prior year. That is down 7,993 or 1.78 percent, according to Blankenship's report. Skico pays RFTA for that service.

RFTA's numbers were salvaged by Roaring Fork Valley commuter service between Aspen and all points downvalley, including Snowmass Village, as well as direct service between downvalley stops and Snowmass. That service is RFTA's bread and butter.

There were 1,948,015 passengers through August on all Roaring Fork Valley commuter service. That was up 50,835 passengers, or 2.68 percent, from the same period last year.

RFTA made a $50 million investment two years ago in expanded service and improvements intended to make riding the bus more attractive. RFTA's bus-rapid-transit system — which features more frequent buses that make fewer stops — started operations in September 2013. Ridership on the bus-rapid-transit buses, which are a subset of the Roaring Fork Valley commuter service, is up 2 percent this year.

"It's probably not up as much as it would have been" if fuel prices were higher and last winter was harsher, Blankenship said.

Another growth area was the service to the Maroon Bells. Through August, it was up 18 percent to 109,990 riders.

The flat ridership has a silver lining. The RFTA staff is proposing a budget for 2016 that recommends against raising fares. The board of directors will review the budget today.

"We took a pretty steep increase in winter-fall 2009," Blankenship said. Raising fares usually results in lower ridership, he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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