RFTA aims to entice riders to buses with drastic fare reduction plan | AspenTimes.com

RFTA aims to entice riders to buses with drastic fare reduction plan

With ridership still down 40%, new rates start Monday with lower cost to travel between zones and new youth rate

RFTA passengers board the bus on Main Street in Aspen as they head home on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is taking bold steps to try to boost its bus ridership back to historic levels after taking a hit during the pandemic.

When winter service starts Monday, it will be cheaper to travel between Rifle and Aspen and travel within a designated zone will be free.

“The cost of commuting is really going down for people,” RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said at the agency’s Nov. 11 board of directors meeting.

There are several big changes coming to the fare system. The El Jebel and Basalt zones will be combined into one, so a person can ride from downtown Basalt to City Market, for example, without paying a fare.

It will cost $2 to get from one zone to the next and $1 per each additional zone. It’s currently $3 to go from one zone to the next. The reworked fares will reduce the price of traveling from Basalt to Aspen to $3 from $4.

There will be a reduced youth fare for passengers ages 6 to 18. They will now pay only $1 per ride anywhere in the regional commuter system. Blankenship said that would greatly reduce the cost for families to take the bus.

The cash fare between Rifle and Aspen will be reduced to $8 from $10 while the trip between Glenwood Springs and Aspen will be reduced to $5 from $7.

In addition, RFTA is taking over the fiscal responsibility to operate the no-fare service between Aspen and Snowmass. The Elected Officials Transportation Committee had used taxpayer funds to keep that service free previously. A change in Colorado tax rules is increasing RFTA’s share of sales taxes and reducing the EOTC’s use tax revenues, so RFTA will fund the upper valley’s free service.

The main impetus for the fare changes is related to RFTA’s core mission of getting commuters out of private vehicles and into buses, Blankenship said. The agency is also trying to recover riders from tough times in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic. For a large share of 2020, bus ridership was restricted to 50% of seated capacity for social distancing. It returned this summer to 100% of seated capacity.

Nevertheless, RFTA’s ridership is at about 59% of what it was in 2019, its record year, according to Blankenship.

“With ridership currently down by 40% due to the pandemic, it is hoped these changes will provide an incentive for more people to use transit,” Blankenship said in an email.

RFTA’s latest budget projections assume a 35% increase in regional fare collections in 2021 compared to 2020, reflecting the recovering ridership numbers this year.

However, the reduced fares adopted by RFTA are expected to decrease fare collections by about 18% in 2022 compared with 2021. Blankenship said RFTA believes it can absorb that reduction in fare revenue through surging sales tax collections, property taxes and COVID-19 recovery funds from the federal government. Sales taxes have increased drastically since a legal decision allowed the state and its entities to tax online sales.

The fare changes were approved provisionally and will be considered again in March.



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