Opening Aspen bus lanes to HOV not so easy
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Converting the Highway 82 bus lanes on the outskirts of Aspen to more heavily used HOV lanes is not an idea that is getting much traction among elected officials and bus riders.
Commuters stuck in traffic, looking at the empty bus lane next to them, however, made enough noise to trigger a review of the bus lanes – and what would be required to make them HOV lanes. Elected officials from Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County were briefed on the topic Thursday in Aspen, though none of them were advocating such a move.
“It was more for us and the public to understand the consequences and the process for making them HOV lanes,” explained county Commissioner George Newman.
The hurdles to converting the lanes for HOV use are significant, officials were told.
Among the necessary steps, according to city transportation director John Krueger, is reimbursing $8 million in funds used to build the bus lanes that came from tax proceeds that can only be used for mass transportation purposes. HOV lanes don’t qualify, he said.
In addition, a May 2007 public vote authorized use of open space for exclusive bus lanes, so another vote would be required to expand the use of the lanes.
Another round of state and federal highway reviews and approvals would also be necessary, Krueger concluded.
Allowing vehicles in the bus lanes would degrade the efficiencies gained for bus passengers when the lanes were completed in 2008 with the completion of the new Maroon Creek Bridge, several officials agreed. When Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses were mixed with general traffic, lengthy delays disrupted the agency’s scheduled service. It sometimes took an hour to travel what should have been a 15-minute trip out of town in heavy traffic, Krueger noted in his report.
Since the lanes opened, delays, when they occur, are more like 4 or 5 minutes.
“It’s hard to argue with that,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley. “At this point, I don’t see converting the bus lanes.”
Wrote one RFTA bus driver: “Having been involved in the twice daily ‘rush hour’ for 30-plus years, the vast improvement in our ability to transport commuters and visitors has so greatly improved because of the bus lane; it’s almost two separate worlds, then and now.”
“The bus lanes, I think, are working very well. I think it’s obvious for those of us who ride the bus,” agreed Newman, a midvalley resident and RFTA rider. “It will be even more important when BRT comes on line.”
BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit, is a speedier bus system now in the planning stages that will require dedicated bus lanes to function as planned, Krueger said.
At present, Highway 82 has HOV lanes, also used by buses, between Basalt and the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport intersection. Only vehicles with two more occupants are allowed to use the HOV lanes when HOV rules are in effect, during peak inbound and outbound commuting hours.
Between the airport and the roundabout at the edge of town, buses have exclusive lanes, open only to RFTA buses, school buses and emergency vehicles.
Inbound, between the airport and Buttermilk, general traffic merges from two lanes into one, and in the morning, buses frequently zip past a long line of vehicles as private automobiles merge during the approach to Buttermilk. That “worm hole,” as it’s known, would move to the roundabout if the bus lanes are opened to HOV traffic, clogging up the roundabout and creating a new backup, closer to town, transportation officials concur.
“If you create bus/HOV lanes all the way to the roundabout, you essentially move the worm hole from Buttermilk to the roundabout,” said Dan Blankenship, CEO of RFTA. “There would still be a backup of traffic some place – the question is where would it occur.”
Until Aspen can come to an agreement on what to do between the roundabout and Main Street – the controversial Entrance to Aspen – all traffic, including buses, will continue to merge into a single lane in each direction for a stretch where Highway 82 winds through two 90-degree turns known as the S-curves.
The city of Aspen intends to poll voters again in November on options for solving the traffic bottleneck at the entrance, but it won’t be proposing bus/HOV lanes, said Mayor Mick Ireland.
“It’s not an option that we have the ability to do,” he said, acknowledging the hurdles to converting the existing bus lanes to HOV use.
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A Snowmass Village Town Council work session on area-wide labor issues and changing community character could be as soon as an Aug. 9 work session following additional council conversation this week.