Maroon Bells service will require online reservations, only 15 riders per bus
Summer bus service to the Maroon Bells was approved Thursday, but it might be a tough ticket to come by.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will likely run four buses per hour between Aspen Highlands base and Maroon Lake starting on a date to be determined in June, according to CEO Dank Blankenship. There will be a maximum of 15 passengers per bus due to social-distancing requirements. That means 60 passengers per hour and roughly 420 per day could be hauled up to the scenic area.
Blankenship told RFTA’s board of directors Thursday that he doesn’t foresee ridership topping 50,000 one-way for the summer.
That’s in contrast to ridership numbers that have swollen to record levels in recent years. In 2018, there were 243,165 passengers up and down, so about 121,582 one-way.
Last summer there were 233,556 passengers up and down, or about 116,778 one-way.
It appeared there wouldn’t be bus service this year. A “working group” consisting of RFTA, Pitkin County, Aspen Skiing Co., Aspen Chamber Resort Association and the U.S. Forest Service was formulating a plan to allow a limited number of private vehicles to drive to Maroon Lake daily this summer in the absence of bus service. They changed direction this week.
Restoring the bus service could be an important symbolic step in “returning to normal” as part of the coronavirus crisis, according to Blankenship.
“There might be some psychological benefits,” he said.
RFTA will likely have to hire more full-time drivers to cover its commuter service and the Maroon Bells this summer (see related story on PAGE A1).
“While we think it would be a stretch for us, we think we could do it,” Blankenship said.
To balance the limited supply of seats on buses with anticipated demand, RFTA is working with partners on a reservation system. All rides on every day of the week will have to be reserved in advance online, according to Blankenship. A company called H2O Ventures will likely be enlisted to run the reservation system. It will charge a $3 fee to make the contract worthwhile, Blankenship said.
The bus fare was $8 last summer. Blankenship said it might have to be raised to $10 to make service worthwhile for RFTA. The rider limits will decrease the fare revenue, but RFTA also will have decreased expenses since as many as 13 buses per day were used last season, Blankenship said.
He warned that the Maroon Bells service could run a deficit in excess of $100,000 even with a higher fare.
The RFTA board of directors voted 6-1 to restore the Maroon Bells service, despite some reservations and concerns. Rider and bus driver safety was raised.
“We would be requiring everybody to have face coverings on that service, as well,” Blankenship said.
In addition, buses will likely be used where passengers board only through a rear door, reducing potential contact between the drivers and passengers.
Some RFTA board members expressed concern about subsidizing the Maroon Bells service at a time when it faces challenges to provide its bread-and-butter service getting employees to and from their workplaces.
“Can we afford to start up a route that’s going to run a deficit?” said Eagle County Commissioner and RFTA director Jeanne McQueeney.
Aspen City Councilwoman and RFTA director Ann Mullins added, “I want to make sure we’re not crippling some other part of RFTA.”
Glenwood Springs Mayor and RFTA director Jonathan Godes proposed requiring that the service break even. He noted that the shuttle service operated between Glenwood Springs and the popular Hanging Lake trail actually makes money. He said it would be unfair for downvalley towns — Glenwood, New Castle and Carbondale — to subsidize service that doesn’t directly benefit them.
“I’ll just be territorial here,” Godes said.
Pitkin County Commissioner and RFTA director George Newman countered that the Maroon Bells is a big draw for tourists visiting any part of the Roaring Fork Valley.
Basalt Mayor and RFTA director Bill Kane agreed that Maroon Bells service benefits the entire valley.
“There is no doubt that the Maroon Bells is tantamount to a national landmark,” he said.
The board approved a motion that allowed the Maroon Bells service to run a deficit of around 10%. Newman voted against the service because he wanted more number crunching and debate on a fare increase.
More information about the reservation system for the Maroon Bells service will be released later this month. Service is likely to start by June 15, according to Blankenship.
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Nearly 100 locally-owned businesses negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have been awarded grants from a pool of $1.2 million in relief funds from Pitkin County.