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Aspen bus routes could hit snag due to COVID-19 restrictions

Greg Fitzpatrick secures the curbside pick-up signs with duct tape next to Mezzaluna in downtown Aspen on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

As the city of Aspen bus service go to its full winter schedule on Monday, buses remain at 50% capacity, per the state’s mandate on COVID-19 restrictions.

With limited numbers of people per bus, more have to be added to the fleet and if demand exceeds capacity, some services could be reduced, City Manager Sara Ott warned earlier this week.

“There is some ongoing concern about our ability to provide service this winter in RFTA’s capacity to provide additional buses, which we would need to pay for to maintain our levels of service on our most popular routes,” she told Aspen City Council during a work session on Monday. “We are looking at what are plans B and C if we have to look at service levels to prioritize certain services over others.”

John Krueger, the city’s director of transportation, said on Thursday that RFTA has 16 backup buses that it will employ if needed, and it is gaining on hiring drivers, which is key to keeping full transit schedules.

Demand will depend on public health orders and what restrictions are in place, which are changing all the time.

“Hopefully the number of skiers and workers will balance out,” Krueger said. “I think we have a shot at it and if not, we may have to look at the city routes and move some things around.”

Beginning on Monday, Nov. 23, the city’s free routes move from the offseason hours to full operation, including service to Burlingame, Castle/Maroon, Cemetery Lane, Hunter Creek, and the Crosstown and Galena street shuttles. Highlands direct begins Dec. 12.

Some of those buses are 35 and 40 feet long, and per the state’s mandate, between 16 and 18 passengers can ride at the same time. The shuttles have a capacity of between six and seven passengers, Krueger said.

RFTA, the city’s transportation department and other transit agencies had been lobbying the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to allow capacity to be set by the Pitkin County Board of Health.

“We asked for local control and we proposed 75% for routes under 15 minutes,” Krueger said.

Not only did state officials deny that request, they said that if transit agencies don’t comply they would lose funding for transportation.

“The department of transportation provides millions of dollars to our public agencies around the state and in no uncertain terms, we’ve been told by the governor’s office and CDOT that if we do not comply with this guidance on public transit this winter we will become ineligible for those dollars,” Ott explained to council.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who sits on the RFTA board of directors, said it was disappointing to not get local control.

“We got a bunch of no’s,” he said. “It has been talked about contracting out for drivers because of the lack of drivers in the valley so transportation is going to be a big question mark this winter.”

The limited capacity on buses will likely force more workers from separate households to commute together, which will increase community spread of the virus.

“This decision to tie funding to our public transit agencies to adhering to these lower levels of capacity, in my opinion is endangering more people in the valley,” Ott told council. “Carpooling … is a more dangerous place of spread.”

Josh Vance, the county’s epidemiologist, reported during Thursday’s board of health that 15.4% percent of COVID-19 spread is attributed to construction, an industry in which many workers carpool.

Ott said officials continue lobby state officials to help them understand the implications of their direction.

She said she expects to see a back-up of passengers at bus stops where they are waiting because buses are at capacity.

“We’re going to run into issues this winter,” she said. “We also are working on a messaging plan to employers to encourage remote work, as well as flexing shifts to the best that they can to spread traffic throughout the day, both on the buses and in private vehicles through the community.”

Parking remains free through December in residential zones, said Mitch Osur, the city’s director of parking and transit services.

He and Ott will make a determination later this month on whether that will continue into 2021.

Rates for downtown parking will go to their highest rates beginning Dec. 1, according to Osur.

On Wednesday, the city blocked off parking spaces to accommodate 15-minute take-out zones for several restaurants, and more will be added, Osur said.

Krueger said before COVID-19 hit Aspen in mid-March, the city buses were carrying 6,000 people a day, and then dropped to between 300 and 400 when the shutdown and slow reopening occurred.

With the new restrictions, he estimated the city routes are carrying 1,000 people a day.

“RFTA has done a fabulous job cleaning the buses and has improved ventilation and air circulation to keep people as safe as possible,” Krueger said, adding that the transit agency will continue to adapt. “It’s just a changing, fluid picture.”

csackariason@aspentimes.com


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