Midvalley preschool asks RFTA to play fair
A midvalley child care center says its pocketbook is getting pinched this summer due to a dispute with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.Michelle Oger, director of the Blue Lake Preschool, said the school has come close to doubling the amount spent on bus passes this summer in large part because of RFTA’s reaction to that dispute.The bus company in early July abruptly changed its policy and decided to charge kids 5 and younger a $1 fee to ride the bus when they were in groups of 10 or more; it is otherwise free for kids that age. Oger said a RFTA official admitted the move was made to discourage her center from piling two classes of kids, or about 31 children, onto one bus.Oger said she worked out a compromise with RFTA by splitting the kids into two groups and putting them on different buses – addressing the cause of the dispute. Nevertheless, RFTA kept the fee in place.RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said the $1 fee was “a knee-jerk reaction” to what happened with the preschool and a policy he will reconsider. He agreed with Oger that the two sides resolved their dispute.”It seems to me we found an equitable solution to a dilemma,” he said.The dilemma was this: Blue Lake Preschool sends two classes to Aspen for activities each Thursday. One class of 15 preschoolers heads to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for field trips; another class of 16 kids goes to the Aspen Recreation Center for rock climbing and other activities.Blue Lake was sending both classes upvalley on the RFTA bus that leaves El Jebel at 9:48 a.m. The preschool has followed that schedule for the five years Oger has been director and probably longer. RFTA never expressed a problem until this year, she said.The problem, said Blankenship, is the kids were filling three-fourths of the bus at a time that’s become increasingly busy. In past years, it wasn’t as big of an issue because the busy commute period was basically over. “But these are unusual times,” said Blankenship. High fuel costs and a robust economy are filling more buses at more times, including 9:48 a.m. June ridership alone was up 13 percent, he said.So when Blue Lake brought 31 kids to the same bus, other riders sometimes couldn’t get a seat, Blankenship said. The buses most often used on that route hold 41 passengers, so when the bus was full it was sometimes forced to skip scheduled stops, angering waiting passengers.In late June and early July tensions between Oger’s staff and one particular bus driver mounted. The two sides have different views on what occurred, prompting a RFTA co-director of operations to intervene. Oger said she expected to receive an apology by the RFTA official for the driver’s behavior. Instead she was informed RFTA was going to start charging the kids in an effort to force her to change schedules. In addition, she said, the official suggested that RFTA believed her teachers and kids were second-class citizens.”[He] said taking kids on field trips isn’t their priority. Getting commuters to work is their priority,” Oger said.Blankenship backed that sentiment, if not those exact words. The agency encourages ridership, he said, but a public entity shouldn’t operate what amounts to a charter bus to benefit a local business.”They schedule events and they basically take up a whole bus,” Blankenship said.As the dispute dragged on between RFTA officials and Blue Lake, Blankenship got involved in talks with Oger and acted professionally, she said. They agreed earlier this month to an arrangement that divided the kids onto two buses, the 9:18 a.m. and the 9:48 a.m.Blankenship didn’t know Oger had any problems with the resolution until contacted by a reporter. When told she objected that the fee was still being charged to kids 5 and under, he said that was a valid issue and one he would revisit.Oger and RFTA officials said splitting the kids between two buses is a viable arrangement that could continue next summer. And since the issue is resolved, RFTA should rescind the charges, Oger said. She estimated the school will spend $1,900 on bus passes this summer; normally it would spend $1,000.She wants the fee dropped and the driver that her school had problems with removed from that route at that time. She also wants the kids to be treated as valued bus riders since they are RFTA’s potential customers of the future.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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