Long-awaited transit cost report due out Monday
Valley commuters will get a look next week at the hard costs associated with the different public transit options that have been the subject of study and debate for most of the last decade.
The most important results of the much-anticipated Corridor Investment Study, which analyze the day-to-day cost of operating and maintaining a valleywide rail system vs. the cost of expanding bus service, is due to be released Monday, Aug. 9.
If the information is everything that’s been promised, it will arm voters in Pitkin County with what they need to decide whether a train or buses are the best option.
Its release, in fact, couldn’t come at a more opportune moment – just one day before the Pitkin County commissioners and the Aspen City Council meet jointly to decide whether to put the question of rail to the voters this fall, and a month before the state filing deadline for the November election.
A key portion of the study – estimates on how many people will ride public transit under different scenarios – was originally supposed to be completed last November. But local officials realized in October that numbers coming out of a computer program developed by Denver-based Parson’s Transportation were grossly inaccurate; the firm was given until June 1 to complete its work.
A second postponement was announced this spring, because the program still failed to accurately reflect ridership on the valley’s existing bus system. If it couldn’t estimate what’s happening today, said Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority Director Tom Newland, it certainly could not be counted on to calculate future ridership in a variety of different public transportation models.
The Parson’s program assumed people returned home between jobs, even if both jobs are in Aspen and their home is in Carbondale, according to Newland. It also assumed a population growth well below current trends because it was using projections based on yet-to-be adopted land-use plans that are designed to limit growth.
Without accurate ridership numbers, the operating and maintenance costs of various models could not be calculated. Newland said the ridership program is working well now, but other factors have tripped up release of the final cost report.
“RFTA raised some concerns about some of the costs that were being used in the program,” Newland said, “so we had to make adjustments.”
The cost estimates of running articulated buses – 65-passenger buses with accordion-like sections that allow them to get around corners – as part of an enhanced bus system weren’t in line with Roaring Fork Transit Agency’s estimates, Newland said. So, the numbers were changed.
The sheer volume of information has been another factor delaying release of operation and maintenance costs.
“There is a tremendous amount of information that is extremely complex, and the time frame for reviewing it all is very tight,” said Dan Blankenship, executive director of RFTA, which runs the bus system between Glenwood Springs and Aspen.
Blankenship said the report on operation and maintenance costs was more than 100 pages long and included about 40 pages of spreadsheets.
In addition to population growth and ridership estimates for the next 20 years, the report must factor costs based on different transit system designs – expanded bus service to Basalt and a diesel/electric train from there, for instance. Another option is a bus system that includes “super express service,” in which a bus circulates through one downvalley community and then runs nonstop into Aspen.
The analysis must also consider the costs of maintaining different kinds of equipment, and accurately estimate the cost of hiring and training people to keep everything running.
“I think the public is expecting that the cost estimates we’ve been working on are as accurate as we can make them,” Blankenship said.
If the numbers aren’t accurate enough to allow voters to make an informed decision, it could mean asking the voters for more money to finish a transportation system or scaling it back, Blankenship said.
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