Expanded bus service near ridership record | AspenTimes.com

Expanded bus service near ridership record

Riders load a downvalley-bound bus at Rubey Park in Aspen earlier this winter.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will approach and possibly top 5 million bus passengers and set a record this year after vastly expanding its service.

RFTA hauled 633,576 more passengers — a 21.7 percent increase — through August compared with last year on its systemwide service between Aspen and Rifle, according to CEO Dan Blankenship.

"We will be approaching 5 million by the end of the year given our current rate of increase," he said.

The year-to-date number of passengers is 3,551,810 this year compared with 2,918,234 over the same period last year. If the current pace continues, RFTA will fall about 28,000 riders shy of 5 million.

However, a surging economy could help break the record and the 5 million mark. Businesses are hiring more workers after shaking the recession, and that means more bus riders.

Breaking the 5 million-rider barrier could come down to weather. Snowfall and icy roads spook many drivers out of their private vehicles and onto buses. If the 2014-15 winter starts as snowy and icy as 2013-14, it will likely boost ridership.

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Blankenship said 2013 was a very strong year but not a record. There were about 4.1 million riders last year. The record was 4.85 million in 2008, he said.

A lot has happened since 2008. Back then, service within Glenwood Springs was free and annual ridership on the Ride Glenwood Springs service was about 500,000, according to Blankenship. A fare was implemented a few years ago, and ridership has tumbled. This year there were 145,503 passengers on Ride Glenwood Springs through August.

But the losses in Glenwood Springs have been dwarfed by gains in Roaring Fork Valley commuter service — passengers riding between Aspen and Glenwood Springs and points between. There have been 1,902,114 passengers on the commuter service this year through August. That is up 537,394, or 39.4 percent, from the same period last year.

An increase was expected because 2014 will be the first full year of RFTA's expanded bus-rapid-transit service. RFTA added 18 buses powered by compressed natural gas to its fleet and increased frequency of direct service between Aspen and downvalley towns. Additional parking was constructed, and 13 key bus stops were upgraded.

There also are extended bus lanes on Highway 82 and traffic signals that favor buses. The improvements are designed to make a bus trip more competitive with travel by private vehicle. Bus rapid transit started rolling in September 2013.

Roaring Fork Valley and New Castle voters along with the federal government invested $46.2 million in the expanded service, so anything short of a hefty gain in ridership would have disappointed the stakeholders. The investment included a $25 million federal grant. Local voters approved a sales tax increase.

No specific ridership increase was forecast by RFTA for 2014.

Service is up almost across the board in addition to the valley commuter buses. Ridership on city of Aspen buses is up 2.5 percent. The Grand Hogback route between Glenwood Springs and Rifle is up 25 percent. Aspen Skiing Co.'s contracted service for free skier shuttles was up 6 percent. Burlingame bus ridership is up 14 percent. The buses to the Maroon Bells saw ridership increase 15.5 percent over the summer. Only X Games service and senior vans were down, 9.4 percent and 1.4 percent respectively.

scondon@aspentimes.com

RFTA BUS RIDERSHIP

2013 4.10 million

2014 4.97 million*

2008 4.85 million (record)

*Projected by RFTA

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