RFTA faces ‘daunting challenge’ finding enough drivers for winter | AspenTimes.com

RFTA faces ‘daunting challenge’ finding enough drivers for winter

People load onto an evening bus to Snowmass wearing masks at Rubey Park Transit Center in Aspen on Wednesday, August 12, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Roaring Fork Valley’s public bus agency faces a “daunting challenge” hiring enough drivers for winter even though COVID-altered service levels won’t be as high as usual.

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority CEO Dan Blankenship told the organization’s board of directors Thursday there are likely enough buses for winter service, but 56 additional drivers must be hired. That will boost the total number of operators for winter to around 205.

“”We’re in full-scale recruitment mode right now,” he said.

The biggest challenge will be training all the new hires in time, according to Blankenship. RFTA might need help from a contractor to fill its needs, he said.

RFTA has ramped up service considerably since June 28 after reducing to “bare bones” operations at the height of the coronavirus crisis in April. It is now making 542 trips daily through service that stretches from Aspen to Rifle. Ridership has increased to about 4,600 passengers per day.

But tweaks made because of the coronavirus are stretching resources thin. RFTA is only allowing a maximum of 15 passengers per bus, one-third or less of capacity. That means more buses in service and more drivers needed even though it probably won’t haul as many passengers this winter as usual.

RFTA has resumed collecting fares, though it isn’t accepting cash. The use of passes by passengers minimizes contact between drivers and riders.

RFTA’s loss of fares and a reduction of sales tax revenue early in the pandemic was more than offset by receipt of a $5.2 million federal grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, better known as CARES. RFTA anticipates a second grant of $3 million from the fund, according to chief financial officer Michael Yang.

“The updated financial forecast, as of Aug. 7, indicates a year-end addition to surplus of approximately $1.213 million,” Yang wrote in a memo to the board.

RFTA’s altered service to the Maroon Bells also has proved successful this summer, according to Blankenship. For the first time ever, reservations are required because of the limit of 15 passengers per bus. There are 29 trips per day so there is an overall capacity of 435.

“We’re at about 100 percent capacity as far as riders,” Blankenship said.

RFTA estimates it will sell 51,356 tickets over the 106-day season of shuttles to the Bells. That will generate about $819,122 through the $15.95 ticket.

The U.S. Service receives 65 cents per ticket or a projected amount of $33,000. A company called H2O Ventures gets $3.65 per ticket for operating the reservation system and welcome center where buses load at Aspen Highlands. H2O will receive about $187,000.

That leaves RFTA with a projected revenue amount of $598,000. It anticipates spending about $667,000 on the service, so it will require a public subsidy of $68,000.

Pitkin County Commissioner and RFTA board member George Newman said the reservation system could serve as a model for a permanent reservation system even after the coronavirus crisis passes.