Aspen’s transit index reflects tough times

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Michael Faas/The Aspen TimesMotorists head out of town last week in Aspen. Traffic counts so far this year are up slightly, compared to 2009.

ASPEN – The number of people flying to Aspen so far this year has surged ahead of recession-riddled 2009, but bus ridership has plummeted and vehicle trips in and out of town remain at a low level.

Aspen’s economic health is measured in lots of different ways – skier visits, sales tax revenues and real estate sales – but transportation statistics provide an alternative look into activity in the upper valley.

Air traffic provides a glimpse at the number of tourists flying into the area. Bus traffic is a good measure of workers heading to jobs. And vehicle trips in and out of Aspen is a mixture of both worker and tourist travel.

Air traffic climbed 9.5 percent through July this year compared to the same seven months last year, according to data tracked by the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. There were 154,489 passengers boarding commercial flights this year compared to 141,095 last year.

Most of the gains were in January and March – months when tourism was particularly bleak in 2009. The Aspen Skiing Co. and its marketing partners targeted March for improvement in 2010.

Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central bookings organization, said the increase in passenger boardings during the first quarter of this year was expected. Aspen had its highest capacity of commercial airline seats since the 1997-98 ski season, he said. Competition among United Express, Frontier and Delta resulted in some of the lowest fares in years.

The number of passengers boarding commercial flights was flat in June and July compared to last summer. That coincided with a reduction in capacity, Tomcich noted.

While tourism is creeping up, based on air travel, employers appear cautious about adding workers, observed Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

RFTA’s regional service from Aspen to Rifle is down 13.3 percent through July and down 12 percent system-wide in the Roaring Fork Valley. Aspen’s free bus service is off 9.6 percent while the free service in Glenwood Springs is down 11.7 percent compared to last year.

“It just seems that overall ridership is down whether it be fare service or free service,” Blankenship. “I think that’s correlating, perhaps, with less jobs being available right now. Business have cut back. Until things start turning around, there won’t be a lot of jobs available, and a lot of our riders are workers.”

RFTA’s overall ridership fell 12 percent to 4.29 million last year, so ridership is falling from numbers that were already drastically down.

There is no evidence that bus ridership is sagging because people are driving more. The city of Aspen has tracked traffic counts at Castle Creek bridge consistently since 1999. The number of trips in and out of town was up slightly three months of this year but down four months compared to 2009. Overall, trips are up 0.58 percent through July compared to last year.

Traffic in July 2010 exceeded the levels of 2008 and 2009, but fell far short of the boom period between 2002-2005, a city report shows.

The busiest day ever recorded was on July 3, 2003, when 33,600 trips were counted in one day. The highest day thus far in 2010 was Friday, July 9, with 29,668 trips.

“While not a record, it indicates that traffic is slowly increasing,” wrote city of Aspen transportation director John Krueger in a memo to the City Council.


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