Officials urge bold choices to avoid gridlock
December 14, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoCARBONDALE A record number of passengers will ride buses in the Roaring Fork Valley this year, but transit planners still fear Highway 82 congestion will go from bad to worse within 25 years if drastic changes aren’t made.About 60 government officials, planners and citizens held a special summit Thursday in Carbondale and concluded that the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority must expedite plans to expand and improve its bus system.RFTA estimates it will crack the 4 million-passenger barrier for the first time in 2006, based on ridership through September. RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said ridership is up 10 percent year-to-date, even though fares increased this year. Higher fares usually result in lower ridership.So if RFTA ridership is rising, what’s the problem? Planners said traffic has the potential to grow at a great rate as well.”Traffic has been kept at 1993 levels. That’s not been without Herculean effort,” said Randy Ready, Aspen’s assistant city manager .He noted that RFTA’s service has grown substantially since 1993. Without another boost in bus service, traffic will hit 44,800 vehicles per day at Cemetery Lane and Highway 82 in the summer and 37,000 vehicles per day in the winter, according to a city study.Ready said the vehicles trying to exit Aspen during the afternoon rush hour would be stacked farther to the east on Main Street and congestion would extend along the entire downvalley corridor without any additional action. In other words, gridlock would affect more of Highway 82 for a greater period of time. Engineers would give the highway a failing level of service in that scenario, he said.The group attending the transit summit concluded that RFTA can play a key role to avoid that grim fate. It wants the agency to find $1 million to spend over the next two years to plan a beefed-up system called Bus Rapid Transit or BRT. That would feature additional service, such as “super-express” buses that would stop only at a select few places on Highway 82 to get passengers into Aspen more quickly in the morning and back home sooner in the afternoon.BRT would also have nicer bus stations to entice more passengers, and more comfortable, fuel-efficient buses, which RFTA has started to acquire.Another key component would be additional bus/high-occupancy-vehicle lanes along stretches of Highway 82.RFTA has been pondering the enhanced bus system for some time, but planning stalled because of a lack of federal funds. Those in attendance at the summit said RFTA cannot wait for the federal “pot of gold” to either plan the project or implement it.Ralph Trapani, a former engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation who headed the expansion of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon and the widening of Highway 82, said getting plans in place is vital in case state and federal funds suddenly materialize for the project. He said that none of the $100 million needed to widen Highway 82 through Snowmass Canyon was in place when his team completed the engineering for that 3.5-mile stretch. But when state funds became available, Snowmass Canyon was first on the list because the planning was complete.The BRT plan isn’t cheap. The cost was an estimated $102 million in 2002.Those who attended the summit urged RFTA to explore tapping local funding sources to build the project in phases. If planning gets under way in 2007, RFTA might have enough of a proposal in place to seek a sales tax increase in 2008, the group said.Randy Udall, an energy expert and director of the Community Office of Resource Efficiency in Pitkin County, predicted the federal government will invest heavily in alternative transportation projects within the next decade.”We’re overinvested in pavement; we’re overinvested in the automobile,” he said.Udall opened the summit with an eye-opening presentation on the world’s oil use and a message that the reserves that are easy to tap, either politically or geologically, are disappearing.The U.S. has tapped 65 percent of its oil, Udall said, placing it at the mercy of imports from foreign countries. On the global picture, it took 125 years to consume the first trillion barrels of oil but will take only 30 years to use the next trillion barrels, he said. Half of the oil ever consumed has been used since 1983, and demand is growing with the modernization of China and India.That increasing demand and scarcity of “easy oil” requires that we seek alternatives, Udall said. It behooves geographical areas, even small ones like the Roaring Fork Valley, to ease their dependence on oil, he stressed.RFTA’s board of directors is scheduled to act in January on the recommendation from the summit.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.