Commutes on decline, study says

Will Grandbois
Glenwood Springs Post Independent

The Roaring Fork and upper Colorado River valleys are seeing fewer commuters making the long haul from Rifle to Aspen and more locals biking or even walking to work, according to a regional travel-patterns study sponsored by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

Jim Charlier, a consultant on the project, presented the findings Friday at a regional transportation forum in Glenwood Springs. Similar studies, conducted in 1998 and 2004, provided a basis for comparison.

“We were just shocked by the volume of upstream commuter flows,” Charlier said of the first study. “If you had a job in this region, you had a car. That’s changed.”

Charlier acknowledged that many people still make 60- or even 90-mile upvalley commutes, but he said rush-hour traffic along Grand Avenue in Glenwood is a lot more of a mix than it used to be.

“Much of this increase isn’t commuters to Aspen. It’s Glenwood Springs getting busier,” he said.

Just 30 percent of Aspen’s workforce comes from within Aspen itself, while 68 percent of Glenwood residents and 63 percent of Rifle residents live and work in the same town.

Per-capita vehicle miles traveled are down 19 percent since 2006 in Garfield County and 11 percent statewide. Some of that is the recession, Charlier said, but alternative transport is a big part of it, as well.

RFTA ridership is up 53 percent since 2004, and around 18 percent of the area’s workforce commutes by bus.

“You have made a major move towards transit in this valley, and it’s paying off,” Charlier said.

The work is far from done, however. Charlier encouraged RFTA to consider extending bus-rapid-transit service to Rifle, calling the western Garfield County hub “an important player in the region.” He acknowledged that bus rapid transit has its limitations, particularly when it comes to the first and last miles of a commute.

“Your park-and-rides are already full,” he said.

With little to no funding for expanded facilities or in-town bus systems, the solution may lie in another emerging data set: the active commuter.

“Places like Carbondale and Glenwood Springs have really begun to come alive with walking and biking,” Charlier said. “I don’t think you can understand what’s happened in Carbondale’s downtown if you don’t think about all the walking and biking that’s going on.”

According to the study, 19 percent of Glenwood residents and 20 percent of Carbondale residents walk or bike to work, a rate he said is on par with Front Range cities such as Denver and Boulder.

With the Colorado Department of Local Affairs projecting a 79 percent increase in Garfield County’s population by 2035, it will take even more self-powered commuters to keep things running smoothly.

Charlier hopes local organizations will invest in the infrastructure to encourage that.

“What we have done for 75 years in transportation is respond to demand,” he said. “Now we’re seeing a new category of demand that we need to respond to.”

Whether transportation funding will keep up with demand is another question.

Don Hunt, director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, also spoke at Friday’s event and included a frank look at CDOT’s budget, which peaked at $1.6 billion in 2007 and was down to $1.2 billion in 2014.

With no increase in the state gas tax since the early ’90s and low voter approval for tax hikes, the state relies heavily on federal money for transportation projects. Colorado pitches in about 36 percent of the cost, which is more than Wyoming’s 27 percent but well below Utah’s 62 percent. The state ranks 37th for pavement condition and 19th in terms of fatalities and 11th in the country for bridge condition.

The last statistic raised some eyebrows in the room.

“I was hoping I could actually come here today and not talk about the bridge, but I brought it up myself,” Hunt acknowledged, a reference to the Grand Avenue bridge replacement project.

He nevertheless managed to avoid the issue for the rest of the presentation until county Commissioner Tom Jankovsky pressed him on attempts to get local governments to pitch in for highway projects. CDOT, faced with a $10 million to $14 million shortfall on the $110 million bridge project, asked local and county governments in the region to chip in.

“I would like that not to be a policy,” Hunt said. “But if we’re trying to do something that’s a little bit different than our basic capital, rehabilitation and maintenance, I think it’s going to take that.”