Bus fare likely to rise $3 or $4 to Aspen’s Maroon Bells

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Passengers get off a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus at the Maroon Lake facilities. Last year a record 174,202 passengers took the bus.
RFTA courtesy photo |

It will likely cost an additional $3 or $4 for a bus ticket to the Maroon Bells starting this summer, on top of current fares of $6 for adults and $4 for kids and seniors.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s board of directors said at their regular meeting Thursday they will entertain a price hike at their next meeting. The prevailing mood was that RFTA shouldn’t continue to subsidize the service to the degree is traditionally has.

The buses started running to the Maroon Lake parking lot in 1977 to ease environmental degradation from private vehicles making the trip and parking.

“There has been an operations subsidy for this since day one,” said RFTA Chief Executive Office Dan Blankenship. The subsidy was about $88,000 last year despite record ridership. RFTA had higher operating costs as well because it expanded service. It operated buses daily in September rather than just weekends. It also started an hour earlier each day at 8 a.m. As many as 13 buses were in action on the busiest Saturdays in the fall.

“There has been an operations subsidy for this since day one.”RFTA’s Dan Blankenship

While RFTA board members want to whittle the subsidy, some expressed concern over making the fare too steep, particularly for families with children.

“It’s been an affordable activity for folks,” said Carbondale Mayor and RFTA board chairwoman Stacey Bernot. She noted the proposed increase would send the kids’ fare to $7 or $8. That will force tough decisions for some families on a budget, she said.

“I guess we draw straws for which kid doesn’t go,” she said.

Basalt Mayor and RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt countered that families that can afford a vacation to Aspen likely can absorb the additional fare.

Blankenship acknowledged there probably is some “price elasticity” that will kick in for some visitors. They will view the price to visit the Bells as too steep. He said his staff discussed that with U.S. Forest Service officials. They stressed they don’t want the service subsidized and support RFTA’s quest to close the gap.

“They’re OK if fewer people are going up there,” Blankenship said.

A record 174,202 passengers rode the buses to Maroon Lake between mid-June and the end of September last year. Thousands more visited by private vehicle, bicycle and outfitter-guides.

Pitkin County Commissioner and RFTA board member George Newman said many visitors regard the Maroon Bells Scenic Area as a national park. In fact, he said, a U.S. senator once called it a national park after a visit. Even with the proposed increases, the bus fare for Maroon Bells will be less than the entrance fee to the national parks, he said.

A spot check showed that Arches National Park charges $25 per vehicle. Zion, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon charge $30. Rocky Mountain National Park charges $20. The entrance fee is often good for a handful of consecutive days at the parks.

The bus ticket to Maroon Bells is just good for that day.

The U.S. Forest Service requires most Bells visitors to ride the bus between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Private vehicles are charged $10 for entry outside of those hours.

The high bus fare isn’t the only new fee in store for Maroon Bells visitors. Aspen Skiing Co. has decided it will start charging $5 this summer for vehicles to park at Aspen Highlands, where the bus ride starts and ends. Skico previously said the revenue is needed to maintain the parking structure at Highlands.

Newman said he would like to see Skico dedicate some of its revenue — $1 or $2 per parking fee — to the Maroon Bells bus service. That contribution combined with a bus-fare hike could cut the subsidy, he said, and everybody would benefit.

“The goal is to keep cars off that road as much as possible,” Newman said.

The board didn’t settle the price hike because RFTA is required to hold a public hearing, which will be May 12. Blankenship said he wasn’t sure all issues could be resolved this year, such as a contribution from Skico. The service starts in mid-June.