RFTA bus plan could cost $190M
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” A plan to vastly expand the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority over the next decade will cost between $180 million and $190 million, local elected officials learned Thursday.
The plan ” known as bus rapid transit (BRT) but informally dubbed “RFTA on steroids” ” has been contemplated for months, but Thursday was the first time consultants laid out the cost to create it. Additional revenues would be required to operate a bigger RFTA.
The cost was unveiled when elected officials from Aspen to Glenwood Springs met in an all-day retreat in Glenwood to discuss RFTA’s future. The officials comprise RFTA’s board of directors.
The hefty price wasn’t the only eye-opener for the board members. They also learned it will require an additional 3,162 parking spaces between West Glenwood Springs and Buttermilk to make the envisioned system work.
Two-thirds of the new parking spaces would be needed in Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, said RFTA consultant Bill Byrne. Another 1,000 are envisioned at the Brush Creek Road intercept lot, the Airport Business Center and Buttermilk.
In return for the investment, RFTA would double its capacity. It would have to add 40 buses to the fleet of 93 it operates today. It would need about 150 additional employees to meet winter demands.
Expansion would allow the agency to add several routes that would make fewer stops between downvalley towns and the destinations of Aspen and Snowmass Village. Currently, RFTA operates seven express buses per hour during mornings from the Basalt Park and Ride to the upper valley. That number would swell to 28 per hour under the BRT. Other routes also would see drastic increases.
Other improvements would include convenient new bus stations strategically placed with new parking structures or parking lots; technology that would give waiting passengers real-time information on bus locations; and bus lanes on Highway 82.
Riding times would be reduced, making the bus competitive with private vehicles. Reducing the travel time is the key to making bus rapid transit work, Byrne said.
Regardless of whether RFTA goes from that entire system or a scaled-down version, it needs to do something, officials said. Skyrocketing ridership this winter stretched the agency to its limits. Many passengers were forced to stand during heavy commute periods in the morning and afternoon. RFTA simply didn’t have the drivers necessary to add service, said Executive Director Dan Blankenship.
“The RFTA system is busting out of its seams,” said Ralph Trapani, a former highway engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation who is now a consultant. Trapani, who oversaw much of the expansion of Highway 82 to four lanes, credited local governments and RFTA with numerous actions over the years that have helped ease traffic congestion. Bus rapid transit is the next great opportunity, he said.
While the price sounds steep, Trapani noted that expanding Highway 82 to four lanes between Basalt and Buttermilk cost $250 million several years ago. Bus rapid transit is a cheaper alternative and more feasible than further expansion of the highway, according to Trapani.
“CDOT is broke,” he said. Federal highway funds are spoken for over the foreseeable future. America is finished adding highway lanes to accommodate traffic, in his opinion.
So how does RFTA pay for its expansion? The best option is probably getting voter permission to collect additional sales taxes, according to Ford Frick, a financial consultant.
Pitkin County has the ability to levy a specially designated 1 percent Rural Transportation Authority tax, with voter approval, Frick said. The other municipalities and county governments that belong to RFTA could raise sales taxes an additional 0.10 percent, he said.
Using those tools, Frick said, would give RFTA bonding ability of about $140 million. RFTA also will pursue grants through the Federal Transit Administration, but consultants said that funding is a crapshoot (see related story).
RFTA’s board of directors must decide in April whether or not to ask voters in November to approve a sales tax increase. Meanwhile, the boards of each local government will be canvassed to see how they feel.
While new restaurants enter the Aspen scene, there are several spaces that will remain empty this winter. Meanwhile, the retail market remains extremely hot.