Free buses between Aspen, Snowmass? | AspenTimes.com

Free buses between Aspen, Snowmass?

Charles Agar
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” A decision on free bus service between Aspen and Snowmass Village hinges on one more yes vote from the Aspen City Council.

The Elected Officials Transportation Committee (EOTC) on Thursday gave a tentative nod to pay the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority $275,000 to provide free bus rides between the towns from Nov. 22 until June 2008.

Final approval depends on a yes vote from either Mayor Mick Ireland or City Councilman Jack Johnson, both were absent from the meeting Thursday.

The EOTC is made up of city of Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village elected officials and disperses about $1.5 million each year from a half-penny transit tax.

Approving an EOTC decision requires majority support from each of the three elected boards.

Pitkin County and Snowmass Village officials voted in support of the free service, but the city of Aspen was split.

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Councilmen Steve Skadron and Dwayne Romero voted in favor of the plan, but J.E. DeVilbiss was opposed, saying he would like more time and more information.

Ireland, who was in Denver on other government matters, could not be reached by phone.

Johnson, also in Denver, said he would have to weigh all of the arguments before voting.

City officials will contact Ireland and Johnson and give RFTA officials “informal direction” before the planned start of free buses between the towns, according to assistant city manager Randy Ready.

During a summer experiment with free buses between Aspen and Snowmass Village, ridership increased by nearly 65 percent, according to Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s chief executive officer.

Blankenship estimated that the $3 cash fares collected from Aspen-to-Snowmass riders in 2008 would generate $366,000.

And EOTC members Thursday weighed the pros and cons of taking up the expense and operating free buses seasonally or year-round.

“I think free really works,” Snowmass Village Mayor Douglas “Merc” Mercatoris said. “I think this is a real wise place to spend money to get people out of their cars.”

“What is the gain?” asked Commissioner Rachel Richards.

With nearly 200,000 paying customers on the route each winter, Richards questioned losing revenues on a section she said was only a small piece the local transportation puzzle.

Richards said she’d like to make the whole system free, but questioned short-term spending versus using the money in other areas, such as solving the bottleneck Entrance to Aspen.

Councilman John Wilkinson of Snowmass Village argued for the “seamless transition” and convenience of free buses that would help indoctrinate a “new generation of RFTA users.”

“We subsidize a lot of things here,” said Commissioner Dorothea Farris, adding that free buses are a great way to welcome visitors and advertise the area.

“This is a time for bold leadership here,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said.

Providing free buses would send a message that local officials care and want to solve local traffic woes, Owsley said.

The group discussed postponing the decision until after another ski season and a chance to collect better data.

But in the end, EOTC members called the question on funding the free bus service, with a plan to look at ridership data and the effectiveness of the program during the June EOTC meeting.

Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com.

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