Rubber meets the road for Aspen councilman on use of gas-powered free transit

Aspen’s elected officials expressed dismay Monday when they learned that the free Downtowner transit service funded by the city has been using a gas-powered van instead of electric carts for over two months.

“I’m not happy about the fossil-fuel vehicles out there that we are funding and sponsoring and idling,” Councilman Bert Myrin said during Monday’s Aspen City Council meeting.

Myrin first inquired about the van in mid-December and was told by Barry Crook, then the assistant city manager, that half of the Downtowner’s fleet of GEM cars were out of service and sent to Utah for repair.

Crook told elected officials via email Dec. 14 that they’d be out of service until mid-January, and in order to maintain an acceptable level of service during the holiday season, the van is the backup.

Crook also noted that the Downtowner is contractually bound to retain service year-round.

Travis Gleason, the chief operating officer for the Downtowner, said Tuesday that as a vendor, the company was told by Crook to use the van.

“We wanted to keep the same level of service, and we were instructed to use this type of vehicle,” he said, adding it was only two electric vehicles out of service in the seven-car fleet. “A couple of our brand-new vehicles from the factory were brought to us with rare charging issues.”

Gleason said he hopes to have them back in service next week, and the use of the van would be eliminated.

John Krueger, the city’s transportation director, told council Monday that the van as a back-up plan will need to be re-examined.

“We didn’t have enough vehicles to meet the demand, … it’s the only way,” Krueger said. “We had to do something to meet the demand; maybe it wasn’t the best choice.”

Krueger added that the electric carts are not made for mass transit.

“Down the road, we’ll have to talk about the vehicles with council, … they might not be the right vehicle,” he said.

Councilman Adam Frisch said the Florida-based company is using vehicles that are better suited for warm weather.

“I think there is an entire discussion to have about compatibility,” he said during Monday’s meeting.

Gleason said Tuesday that none of the GEM cars have had any issues related to weather since they were put into service here in 2016.

“We’ve seen a couple of seasons now,” he said. “We are just trying to deliver the best service possible.”

As part of the email chain between Crook and council members in December, Frisch expressed his concerns about the state of affairs with the app-based, free transit service.

“If they had no reasonable back-up plan for loss of one, it is 10 times disheartening to hear no plan when they lose half their fleet,” he wrote. “A big red flag to me of the depth of their business model. I would like some update on their future back up plans as this is not good. … Please be aware that 100 percent of the decision to go out of local provider was the electric motor and the app — both which are starting to not play out.”

Myrin also stated his concern about the appearance of using a vehicle similar to local cab companies and limo services.

“I don’t think this will go over well with the local transit providers because the form is no longer a distinct electric GEM and instead looks and feels like something owned by local transit providers (if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.),” he wrote.

The city has a five-year contract with the Downtowner and the annual renewal is in April. A better back-up plan will likely be required when that conversation occurs, according to elected officials.

The city has spent over $1.1 million for the service since it began in 2016, when it was first rolled out as a pilot program for the summer.


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