RFTA board approves extra security on buses, eager to look at alcohol ban | AspenTimes.com

RFTA board approves extra security on buses, eager to look at alcohol ban

Additional security officers will start riding Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses and patrolling bus stops from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.

The RFTA board of directors approved a staff proposal Thursday to take extra security steps because of an increasing trend of assaults of drivers and other passengers, verbal abuse, vandalism and fare scams. The board also said it wants to consider a ban on open alcohol containers on buses sooner rather than later.

"I think we need to act quickly on that," said RFTA board Chairman and Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman, who urged the board unsuccessfully to ban open containers about two years ago.

Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson and Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, both RFTA board members, said they would be more receptive to an open container ban now than they were the last time it came up.

“Personally, I like to drink on the bus but I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’m willing to stop.”

— Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt

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Whitsitt acknowledged there are times when people like to have a drink on the bus, such as heading to a concert or special event.

"Personally, I like to drink on the bus, but I don't think it's a good idea," she said, drawing laughs from the crowd. "I'm willing to stop."

Newman asked how many problems on buses stem from alcohol use.

"I think it's a pretty clear understanding of 'party and ride the bus,'" RFTA co-director of operations Kent Blackmer said.

While it is good that people are taking buses rather than driving while drinking, it clearly leads to problems, he said. Most riders who have had something to drink are fine, but alcohol often plays a part in the incidents that occur, according to Blackmer.

RFTA's current alcohol policy is confusing, officials conceded. It is unlawful to enter or exit a bus with an open container. However, popping a top is allowed once on the bus.

Tom Dalessandri, owner of Colorado Protective Services, the company contracted for RFTA security, seconded Blackmer's opinion that banning open containers would reduce conflicts.

The RFTA board directed the staff to come to the next monthly meeting in March with information on changing the policy, including the expense and the timing of implementing it.

A hurdle to adopting the stricter policy in the past has been RFTA management's concern about putting drivers in a position of having to enforce the alcohol ban. RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship previously said they want drivers concentrating on the road, not looking to see if anyone is drinking.

That's one of the issues that still have to be addressed. Before the policy is implemented, Blankenship said Thursday, the security firm will have to train bus drivers on how to enforce the alcohol ban and how to de-escalate incidents. That means a ban cannot be put in place until spring offseason.

Meanwhile, the increased security measures got a green light. The RFTA board previously approved increasing the security budget to $125,000 this year from $80,000 last year. The extra security steps include:

Increase security staffing on Friday and Saturday to one additional security officer with a focus on Snowmass Village routes and a presence in the village up to 2:15 a.m.

Add a downvalley security person to ride between Glenwood Springs and El Jebel with coverage at Carbondale at 10 p.m. and at Glenwood Springs at midnight.

Add random security shifts to provide coverage in the morning, midday and early evening.

Work with local law enforcement agencies to require more police presence at key stop locations and on buses.

Revise signs to show that impediment of a bus operator is a violation of the RFTA Code of Conduct and a crime. Work with the district attorney's office to prosecute individuals who physically assault a bus operator or other passenger.

RFTA also is vetting smartphone applications that can be used to alert the agency about a legitimate safety threat or behavior issue. An app has been used effectively by the Denver RTD system, according to Blackmer. Users must register, so there hasn't been a large problem with bogus reports, he said.

Dalessandri said adding times when uniformed security officers ride buses should act as a deterrent to rowdy behavior. Even so, security officers will only be able to ride on a handful of bus runs, so the problems won't be eliminated, he warned.

scondon@aspentimes.com