RFTA’s Maroon Bells shuttle subsidy swells above projections | AspenTimes.com

RFTA’s Maroon Bells shuttle subsidy swells above projections

A RFTA shuttle drops off passengers and prepares to load a new group at the Maroon Bells on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Maroon Bells shuttle service under a new reservation system has been deemed a success this summer but it has come at a price.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will spend an estimated $177,000 to subsidize the special service, CEO Dan Blankenship told the board of directors at a meeting Thursday.

Blankenship offered his “sincere apology” for miscalculating the size of the subsidy when the service was launched in June.

“We’ve learned a lot. We never operated with a reservation system in the past,” Blankenship said.

He identified three main factors for creating the larger subsidy.

First, RFTA has greater expenses than anticipated for buses and drivers to get passengers back down to Aspen Highlands in afternoons. Riders take shuttles up throughout the day, but downhill travel tends to get bunched up in the afternoon. That requires more buses and drivers to get passengers down in a timely manner. Capacity is limited to 15 passengers per bus due to precautions over coronavirus.

Second, day hikers coming from Crested Butte and backpackers completing a trip in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are generating more demand than anticipated for bus rides down from Maroon Lake. On one day over Labor Day Weekend, for example, there were 234 additional passengers seeking a ride down, Blankenship said.

If the reservation system is retained for future summers, RFTA will sell a reduced fare ticket and require a reservation for a trip down for people who didn’t ride up, Blankenship said. A full ticket this season is being sold for $15.55.

A third factor increasing the subsidy is a decision to add weekend service during leaf-peeping season. Starting this weekend and going through the first weekend in October, RFTA will add buses Friday through Sunday. It will increase capacity by 255 seats.

“The current estimated cost of the Maroon Bells Shuttle for the 113-day season is $842,963,” said a memo from RFTA staff to the board. “If ticket sales continued to follow the current trend, net ticket revenue to RFTA at the end of the season would be approximately $665,790, and the subsidy for the service would be approximately $177,174 or 21 percent.”

The initial subsidy had been forecast at about $62,000 or 11%.

RFTA board members expressed support for the vital service, which saves the Maroon Bells Scenic Area from being overwhelmed by private vehicles.

“I don’t think there was an expectation that it was going to be perfect,” said Eagle County Commissioner and RFTA board member Jeanne McQueeney.