High fuel costs add to RFTA woes
You think you’re getting walloped in the wallet at the gas pump? Think of the Roaring Fork Transit Authority.The government agency that runs buses 3 million miles annually between Aspen and Rifle and points in between is feeling the pinch of high fuel costs even though it uses diesel, which hasn’t skyrocketed in price as much as gas. The bus operator also has the advantage of being exempt from taxes.Nevertheless, fuel costs for the first five months of the year were about $20,000 more than budgeted, according to RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship. The shortfall could grow to more than $50,000 by the end of the year if fuel prices remain high, he said.RFTA’s experienced the deficit even though it planned for higher costs in this year’s budget. It boosted its fuel budget from $520,000 last year to $700,000 this year, according to Blankenship.The problem is, prices climbed more drastically than the budget. RFTA, which uses about 600,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year, anticipated a price of $1.10 per gallon, reflecting the lack of taxes, Blankenship said. Prices for the agency hit $1.50 last month but have dropped slightly in recent weeks, according to Kenny Osier, director of maintenance.The high fuel costs couldn’t come at a worse time for RFTA, which is projecting multimillion-dollar deficits in future years. Sales tax revenues never came in as high as projected for the agency after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the national economic doldrums that followed.High gas prices apparently haven’t forced large numbers of commuters out of their cars and into the buses. Blankenship said RFTA hasn’t experienced a surge in riders even though gas prices soared this spring.”People just line up and shell out the dollars,” he said. Bus ridership will only increase if prices remain high for a sustained period, he said.RFTA is investing in four hybrid buses, which run on a combination of diesel fuel and battery power, but not necessarily because of better fuel economy. The hybrids will be quieter and release significantly lower emissions, Osier said. “If we see fuel improvement that’ll be the gravy,” he said.The hybrids have a chance of getting improved mileage when used in Aspen and possibly between Aspen and Snowmass Village. They are most efficient in city driving, when stops are frequent. Their electric motor helps accelerate, when buses typically waste a lot of fuel. And braking regenerates power in hybrids rather than wastes it, Osier explained.RFTA’s standard diesel-engine buses achieve their greatest fuel efficiency on the valley routes, where they travel long distances without stopping, according to Osier. The new buses get between 5.6 and 5.8 miles per gallon on the longer routes, he said.While that may sound low it is actually high for the transportation industry, said Osier. He hopes that figure climbs at least a little with the hybrid buses.RFTA is finalizing contracts with a manufacturer for the hybrids, which cost about $250,000 to $275,000 more than standard buses. Funding for the hybrids was granted by the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, comprised of government representatives from Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County.New buses cost around $325,000. The hybrids cost at least $575,000. The hybrids are scheduled to be delivered in summer 2005.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com– see RFTA on page A6– continued from page A1″People just line up and shell out the dollars.” Dan Blankenship, RFTA
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