Catch bus to the Bells at Highlands |

Catch bus to the Bells at Highlands

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The bus from downtown Aspen to the Maroon Bells will apparently be cut this summer in favor of bus service starting at Highlands Village, but whether the cost of a ride to the popular site will increase has yet to be decided.

By eliminating the Maroon Bells bus service from Rubey Park in downtown Aspen and operating solely from the Aspen Highlands base village, the Roaring Fork Transit Authority may save enough money to avoid hiking the $5 fare, said Paul Hilts, RFTA director of operations.

“That’s the intent of this. By running out of Highlands, I think we can avoid raising the fees. That’s our goal here.”

The Aspen City Council voted Monday to amend the approvals for Highlands Village so that it can be the primary staging area for the Maroon Bells bus service. The final decision regarding the bus service – and setting the fare – is up to the RFTA board of directors, which is likely to discuss the issue next month, Hilts said.

RFTA, facing a drop in revenues from sales taxes and fares, is looking to cut costs. Eliminating the Maroon Bells bus from Rubey Park should erase the $70,000 deficit RFTA incurred last year, when it ran buses to the Bells from both Rubey Park and Highlands, said Hilts.

A bus to Maroon Lake and the Bells – the scenic 14,000-foot peaks that tower above it – will leave Highlands Village three times an hour this summer. The free Maroon/Castle Creek bus that leaves Rubey Park three times an hour can provide a connection with the Maroon Bells bus for visitors who begin the trip from downtown Aspen, Hilts said.

Pitkin County, in a joint move with the U.S. Forest Service, began banning vehicles from Maroon Lake during the summer months in the late 1970s because cars were overwhelming the site and damaging the meadows next to the lake. For some 15 years, the buses operated from Aspen Highlands, until fees to use the parking lot there became prohibitive, according to Hilts.

“Years ago, when we ran it strictly out of Highlands, is when it set all the ridership records,” he said.

Last year for the first time, RFTA offered two buses an hour to the Bells from two locales – Rubey Park and Aspen Highlands. Ridership, which had been declining, went up 16 percent last summer. About 78,000 people rode the buses – about 40 percent boarded at Highlands, where free parking is available during the summer.

“Ridership went up pretty dramatically, but unfortunately, so did expenditures,” Hilts said.

With RFTA only able to offer service from one location this summer, representatives of RFTA, the Forest Service and Highlands Village agreed the ski area base is the better option.

It is easier to turn vehicles around at the Forest Service gate on Maroon Creek Road and send motorists back to nearby Highlands than tell them they must drive into downtown Aspen, find a parking space and board a bus at Rubey Park, said Jim Upchurch, Aspen district ranger.

Running the buses from Highlands could also help provide an economic boost to the new base village, a memo to the council also noted. One village business, the Commonwealth Pub, closed up during the ski season after failing to make a go of it.

The Forest Service is interested in installing a permanent interpretive display for the Bells at Highlands if it is to be the staging area for the bus service, Upchurch added. The displays will be designed this year.

“Eventually, what we’d like to see is a permanent facility that really would do justice to the Maroon Bells,” he said.

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