Restrictions might be eyed for Aspen’s Maroon Bells peak-season bus service
Restrictions might have to be placed on the number of buses delivering leaf-peepers to Maroon Lake in fall because the current system has become overwhelmed, officials involved in oversight said this past week.
Identifying the problem is easy. Coming up with a solution is complicated, according to Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
“The Forest Service recognizes it’s not a snap-your-finger, poof, there’s a solution situation,” Grail said Monday.
The problem arises on prime weekends for fall colors between mid-September and early October. The limited parking spots in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area fill up by about 5:30 a.m. with photographers and gawkers who want to catch the sunrise with the iconic view of the Maroon Bells mountains and the reflections in Maroon Lake.
Forest Service personnel must be stationed at the parking lots to turn people around because desperate people willing to park anywhere will trample the vegetation.
Bus service operated by Roaring Fork Transportation Authority starts at 7 a.m. on those busiest days, but the wait is often one hour or more.
“What we’ve seen over the last five years or so is a steady increase in ridership,” said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship.
There were a record number of riders in summer-fall 2018. That mark likely would have been eclipsed this year except Maroon Lake facilities opened late because of remnants of avalanche debris. There were about 120,000 one-way tickets sold this year. That doesn’t include people traveling up via bike and private vehicle.
Even with a slight dip in its numbers, RFTA experienced record daily ridership with 3,480 passengers one-way on Sept. 28, Blankenship said. On Oct. 5, there were 3,266 one-way tickets.
The average ridership was 1,150 per day. The bus fare is currently $8. The Forest Service receives 65 cents per ticket. RFTA uses the remainder to fund the operations of the service.
“The challenge of that is we don’t have unlimited numbers of drivers and buses,” Blankenship said.
Grail noted that RFTA has been very accommodating, but the current system has its flaws. If rainy weather rolls in, ridership plummets and RFTA is overstaffed.
Blankenship said that some day “we might have to contemplate limits” to service.
“That raises the specter of a reservation system at peak times,” he added. “No decisions about that have been made.”
Grail said a solution must be a collaboration between the Forest Service, RFTA, city of Aspen, Pitkin County, town of Snowmass Village and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. The parties have been meeting for more than a year. The goal is to have at least a pilot program in place by leaf-peeping season 2020.
Everything from adding buses, creating a peak fall weekend reservation system to doing nothing is on the table, Grail said. One consideration is easing the impact of bus traffic at the base of Aspen Highlands and on Maroon Creek Road residents, both Grail and Blankenship said.
Meetings with elected officials will be held starting in February to explore solutions to the problem.
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The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will scale back bus service for a second time this month on Monday. A proposal to temporarily cease operations was rejected by the board of directors on Friday.