Basalt finally achieves goal of providing mass transit within town boundaries

Pilot project with the Downtowner will determine if town can sustain circulator service long-term

Aspen’s free Downtowner shuttles a community member past the Aspen Mountain gondola plaza on Friday, April 2, 2021. Basalt and RFTA will fund similar service in Basalt for 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Traveling within and between Basalt’s two halves via mass transit should be a lot easier next year thanks to an experiment being funded by the town and Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

RFTA’s board of directors approved a request by Basalt to split the cost of free, on-demand service called the Downtowner. RFTA’s board voted 8-0 to provide a $190,000 grant. Basalt will contribute an equal amount.

Basalt is shaped like a barbell with weights. Willits is at the west weight of the barbell. Old town and Southside are the east-end weight. Basalt officials have long coveted cost-effective, flexible mass transit that connects the two sides of town and makes travel easier within the pods.

“This has been a priority for the Town of Basalt and was identified in the 2020 Master Plan as the second highest ranked project, just after affordable housing, by our residents,” Basalt town manager Ryan Mahoney wrote in the request to RFTA.

Basalt Mayor and RFTA director Bill Kane said he is excited about the potential for service within Basalt as well as the connection to broader RFTA bus service.

“This is a proposed one-year pilot,” Kane told the RFTA board on Thursday. “We’re hopeful that we’re going to learn a lot this winter and next summer about origin and destination and how it’s used to connect people up to trunk line service and to what extent it’s used for local convenience, getting back and forth for shopping, etc.”

That data will help Basalt determine how to proceed with funding in the future, Kane said.

Patrons walk in and out of the Whole Foods Market in El Jebel on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

RFTA directors are hopeful that providing the service also entices more people to ride RFTA’s regional bus service. For example, a person in Basalt’s Hill District might be inclined to arrange a ride on the Downtowner to the RFTA parking lot on Highway 82 for a bus ride to work in Aspen.

Glenwood Springs Mayor and RFTA director Jonathan Godes said he would consider additional financial support in the future if results show more people catching regional bus service out of Basalt.

“If at the end of the year we don’t really see an uptick and (the Downtowner) is a nice thing for people at 2 o’clock in the afternoon to get to their grocery shopping at Willits, that’s great for you guys but I don’t know that that’s a game-changer from a regional perspective,” Godes said.

The service will be offered eight months of the year but not in April and May or October and November. The hours will be 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on most days; 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in summer months.

The service will be provided by one transit van with a capacity for 12 riders and an eight-passenger van capable of accommodating one wheelchair.

The goal is to get service started in January, according to Basalt town manager Ryan Mahoney. The work will be farmed out to a contractor who provides the labor and vehicles. Aspen funds similar Downtowner service.

The investment includes nearly $11,000 in start-up costs and $363,000 in operations. Basalt would receive about 5,268 hours of service.

The preferred way to book is a ride is through an application though a phone number will also be available. The Downtowner will only pick up and drop off passengers within the town of Basalt boundaries, Mahoney said. Neighborhoods on the fringe, such as Sopris Village and Summit Vista, and islands of unincorporated land, such as Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park and the Aspen-Basalt Campground, won’t be within the service area. Mahoney said he and Eagle County officials have held preliminary talks about including areas in Eagle County bordering Basalt in future service.

The Downtowner will be available to anyone. Residency in Basalt is not required.

At Thursday’s meeting, the RFTA board created a new funding mechanism designed to encourage transit-related projects within its eight-member jurisdiction. The board transferred $3 million of unallocated funds into the First and Last Mile Mobility reserve fund. The concept is to encourage grant requests from the cities, towns and counties that are funding partners in RFTA and “kick start” solutions. Basalt’s Downtowner is the first recipient of a grant.

RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said the grants would be seed money rather than a steady funding source for the initiatives.

“The goal is go get them up and running,” he said.