Bus system’s ridership still battling back from pandemic hit

RFTA’s 2021 ridership was down 42% from pre-pandemic level

Skiers unload from RFTA buses at the Rubey Park Transit Center in downtown Aspen on Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Ridership on the Roaring Fork region’s public bus system was down 42% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic numbers in 2019 but it is showing signs of bouncing back.

The soaring price of gasoline is expected to entice more people to leave their private vehicles behind and seek alternatives such as car pools, company vans and buses.

“I think we will see a shift depending on how high (gas prices) go and how long,” Roaring Fork Transportation Authority CEO Dan Blankenship said Thursday.

The last time prices topped $4 per gallon, RFTA experienced standing room only on its buses, he said, referring to 2008.

AAA of Colorado reported this week that gas prices have topped the threshold of when many drivers change their transportation habits.

“$3.75 also marks the price point, per AAA survey data, where a majority of Coloradans (64%) adjust their driving habits — either by driving less often, driving shorter distances, combining trips, driving slower speeds to conserve fuel, and more,” AAA said in a news release.

Like many local businesses, RFTA took its lumps during the pandemic, especially early on. It restricted the number of passengers allowed on buses to adhere to social distancing guidelines. It also reduced frequency of service when COVID-19 struck but gradually ramped back up. RFTA still doesn’t allow buses to fill to the point where passengers are standing. Masks are still required by federal mandate.

RFTA passengers board the bus on Main St. in Aspen as they head home on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

There were 3,188,831 passengers in 2021 compared to 5,468,641 in 2019. Aspen service was down 50%; valley service was down 38%; the Hogback service in the Lower Colorado River Valley was down 42% last year.

But the numbers are looking up. The average daily ridership this winter through Feb. 25 is 14,492 compared to 8,880 over a comparable time last winter. That’s an increase of 63%.

“That’s great, we’re moving people,” RFTA chief financial and administrative officer Michael Yang said at a board of directors meeting on Thursday.

Blankenship said he anticipates ridership in 2022 to end up at about 85% of the mark set in 2019, which was RFTA’s second busiest year.

After the meeting, Blankenship told The Aspen Times he believes the worker shortage gripping the region played into reduced ridership in 2021. His theory is that many employees moved out of the valley when businesses shut down or operated with reduced staffs when the pandemic struck in March 2020.

When the economy roared back to life starting in summer 2020, employees that were interested in returning couldn’t find housing. Numerous units that were previously available to seasonal workers were converted into short-term rentals for tourists or they were snatched up by newcomers flocking to the area. As a result, many businesses are limping by with fewer employees.

A smaller workforce means fewer people riding the buses. There’s no end in sight to the valley’s housing shortage.

RFTA approves end of season bonus

RFTA employees who stick with their jobs through the end of ski season will be eligible for a bonus of up to $1,000 for drivers and other frontline workers and $500 for those in the background.

The agency’s board of directors on Thursday approved the bonus proposal submitted by RFTA management.

Michael Yang, chief financial and administrative officer, said the bonus program was warranted because of extra hardships RFTA employees faced this winter. Winter is always busy, he said, but this year the bus agency couldn’t hire enough employees to get up to full strength.

In addition, drivers are facing the unenviable task of enforcing a mask mandate that is becoming increasingly unpopular. The mask requirement on public transportation was extended Thursday on the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public transit is one of the few places where masks are still required.

Employees will be awarded an end-of-season bonus based on a formula that includes hours worked, overtime and other factors.

“We believe this could have a positive impact on our workforce,” Yang told the directors.

The total estimated expense for the bonus program is $350,000. RFTA had a surplus of about $32 million at the end of 2021, largely due to federal COVID relief grants and sales tax revenues that were higher than anticipated.