Hershey among the skeptics on transit numbers | AspenTimes.com

Hershey among the skeptics on transit numbers

Ask rail’s most vocal opponent about the recently completed corridor investment study on valleywide transit and he’s not likely to tell you it has changed his mind about anything.

Aspen City Councilman Tony Hershey makes no bones about his doubts over the assumptions in ridership and operating costs for the proposed rail system. The ridership projections are too high, he reckons, and operating and maintenance cost projections are too low.

“All we’re going to do is move the people who ride the bus onto the train,” Hershey said at Tuesday’s meeting of the Elected Officials Transportation Committee. “Buses are cheaper, and buses go where people are – this is a car-oriented community and we have to accommodate that.”

Hershey isn’t alone in his skepticism about the numbers coming out of the study, especially the projected increase over the next 20 years in the use of public transportation.

Last year, the Roaring Fork Transit Agency, which manages the existing bus system, picked up 1.4 million passengers commuting along the Highway 82 corridor, a 134 percent increase over 1991, according to RFTA Director Dan Blankenship.

Under projections laid out in the study, rail is expected to haul about 3 million passengers in 2003; an improved bus system about 2.2 million. Projecting ahead to 2020, the study says the rail system will carry between 10.4 million and 11.6 million passengers, depending on population growth, and the improved bus system will carry 8.1 million to 9.3 million passengers.

“Where are all those people supposed to come from?” Hershey wondered on Tuesday.

More people will be riding public transit in the future for several reasons, answers rail consultant Roger Millar, but there are two that are particularly important.

“One is that most of the day, you will be able to get where you want to go whenever you need to go there – making transit more convenient.” he said. “The other is expanded service in Carbondale.”

Millar said that either system will vastly improve service both between valley communities and within downvalley communities. Currently, the only major in-town bus system operates in Aspen. While it is simple for someone living in Mountain Valley to take a bus to Cemetery Lane, it’s impossible for someone living in Blue Lake to take a bus to the City Market in El Jebel.

Both systems, as currently proposed, include local service in Basalt, El Jebel and Carbondale, and improvements to Glenwood Springs bus service. Millar says the addition of local service will capture demand that already exists in those communities.

Another way to capture existing demand is with improved service between communities. For commuters between El Jebel and Aspen, buses currently run every half-hour through most of the day. For residents of Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, however, the service is less frequent – hourly express buses to Aspen during rush hour and local service once every two hours for the rest of the day.

“These investments do not represent a significant increase in the level of service between El Jebel and Aspen, but they do represent a major increase in the level of service for people living farther down the valley” said Blankenship. “I would expect to see a major increase in ridership over two or three years if the investments are made.”

The RFTA director said that the “off-peak” runs between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, departing every other hour, are extremely well used despite their infrequency. By beefing up service so that the buses leave every 30 minutes, more people will be willing to use the system, because if they miss their bus or train, another will be leaving in a half-hour.

Rail is expected to draw more passengers than improved bus service because it is more convenient, Millar said. The trip from Glenwood to Aspen is expected to take 66 minutes on a train in 2020, and 79 minutes on the bus.

Demand will also grow with the population. The study used two population growth models to analyze ridership. One is based on planned growth that depends on the implementation of land-use plans in communities up and down the valley, the other is based on the actual growth rate between 1990 and 1998.

Under the planned-growth model, the valley’s population is expected to grow from about 40,000 today to slightly more than 60,000; under trend growth, it’s expected to increase to slightly less than 80,000.

“There are a lot of people who just can’t accept that we’re going to keep growing,” Millar said. “We can’t plan transit on what we hope will happen; we have to plan based on what is happening and what communities plan to happen.”

While Blankenship agreed with Millar’s conclusion, he is not willing to vouch for the numbers in the study, at least until he has a chance to check the math. “I think a little bit of skepticism is a healthy thing,” he said.

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