No free ride to Snowmass | AspenTimes.com

No free ride to Snowmass

SNOWMASS VILLAGE ” There will be no free bus ride between Aspen and Snowmass.

That was the decision made by the Aspen City Council on Monday. The council denied, 4-1, a request to approve funding an experiment that would make the bus route free between the two resorts until June 19.

The goal was to see if more people would get out of their cars if they didn’t have to pay the $3 fare that the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority currently charges between Aspen and Snowmass.

But with increased ridership comes increased cost. Not only would the free bus service cost an estimated $277,574 in lost revenue, but there also would be additional expenses in capital, equipment, staff and operations if ridership goes up.

Mayor Mick Ireland estimates that the total cost would be $832,000 ” triple the initial cost estimate. That amounts to $6 a person, based on the number of people who have ridden the Aspen-Snowmass route in the past.

What’s more, there is not enough data to make an educated decision on how far-reaching the impact would be to offer free bus service, based on a shorter experiment conducted this past summer when the route was free.

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“We’ve been asked to indulge in an experiment, but we don’t have good data,” Ireland said. “I think the discussion has glided over the true costs of this experiment.”

The majority of the council members agreed that it would be premature to spend taxpayer money without having a detailed cost analysis and better data of just how much ridership increased during the summer when the route was free.

It’s estimated that ridership went up 64 percent when riders traveled for free, but there was no baseline to compare it to, officials argue.

A thorough analysis will be done within the next year when RFTA can devise a system for better counting passengers, said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship.

“We acknowledge that our information is not the best to make a decision,” Blankenship said, noting that the EOTC has requested the money, and his organization and city staff are only responding to that request.

The costs for the free bus service would be borne out of revenues from a half-cent sales and use tax that are controlled by the Elected Officials Transportation Committee. That fund has a $6.4 million surplus and the tax generates about $3.5 million a year.

The EOTC is comprised of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, and the Snowmass Village and Aspen City councils. All three governments must approve funding in order for it move forward.

Assistant Aspen City Manager Randy Ready had recommended to the council that it should hold off on making the route free until the bus-only lanes between the roundabout and Buttermilk are completed next fall to see how much transit service improves.

“The entire landscape of transit is going to change with the bus lanes,” Ready said, adding that the council may want to consider other free routes in the future and they should be weighed against the Aspen-Snowmass route.

In fact, upon Ireland’s suggestion, the City Council voted unanimously to have staff and RFTA officials examine how much it would cost to provide free bus routes from Aspen to Basalt.

City Councilman Dwayne Romero was the lone dissenter on denying the free Snowmass bus, saying funding such a community amenity is in line with providing mass transit incentives.

“It’s in alignment with some of our basic core beliefs,” he said.