RFTA bus ridership plummeted in 2020 but $19.3M in federal relief anticipated this year

Pandemic ridership fell to 2.67 million from 5.47 million in 2019

RFTA passengers load and unload buses outside of Rubey Park Transit Center in Aspen on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Ridership on the Roaring Fork Valley’s public bus system was only about half during pandemic-plagued 2020 as it was the year before, according to preliminary numbers.

Ridership system-wide plummeted to 2.7 million last year compared to 5.5 million in 2019, according to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. That is a decrease of 51%. The bulk of the loss was in valley commuter service, down 1.43 million in ridership.

RFTA’s standard in recent seasons has been at or above 5 million riders annually.

The loss of riders came with a loss of revenue. RFTA not only dialed back service but also suspended fares for a while early in the pandemic. Relief has come through federal funds.

RFTA received about $8.58 million and the city of Aspen $2.02 million through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act last year. A larger amount is expected through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021.

RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said Monday the agency learned in a Zoom meeting hosted by the Colorado Department of Transportation on Friday that it would receive an estimated $19.3 million in coronavirus funds this year. The preliminary estimate is the city of Aspen will receive $4.5 million from that fund.

Colorado received $78.1 million in CRRSAA funds. CDOT is providing proportionate shares to transit systems in the state.

New rule for face-covering types on buses

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is alerting riders that a new federal public health order will effect what they can wear for face coverings when they get on a bus or wait at a terminal.

“The main difference is that people won’t be allowed to wear scarves, ski masks and bandanas anymore,” said RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship. Only masks that cover the nose and mouth will be allowed.

RFTA will try to have masks available for people who show up without the right one, but riders should get the proper coverings.

A full description of what qualifies and what doesn’t is available at

“However, while we feel relatively confident that RFTA will receive this amount, it won’t be official until we have an executed CDOT grant agreement in the next few months,” Blankenship told The Aspen Times in an email.

Any increased costs related to COVID-19 are eligible for CRRSSA funding. That includes cleaning buses, applying a viruscide during fogging, purchasing personal protective equipment, providing back-up buses to deal with capacity restrictions, leave for quarantined workers and leave for employees due to service cuts.

Any eligible spending RFTA incurs prior to the execution of the grant will be covered because the funding came with pre-award authority for certain expenditures, according to Blankenship.

RFTA employee Patricia Rosales Trigo, left, and lead mechanic Will Fabela disinfect a bus at the Aspen Maintenance Facility on Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

In a memo to RFTA’s board of directors for a meeting Thursday, Blankenship said CDOT is considering a two- or three-year contract for the federal aid because there is no guarantee additional funds will be available. Transit agencies would be allowed to draw down on the CRRSAA funding for as many as three years.

“Consequently, RFTA will do its best to manage the expenditure of this needed funding as wisely as it can, since it may need to last for a while,” the memo said.

RFTA also anticipates that ridership and revenue will pick up starting this year.

“RFTA is forecasting about a 21% increase in 2021,” Blankenship wrote. If the projection is accurate, it would provide about 3.24 million rides this year compared with 2.67 million last year.

“Part of the rationale for forecasting an increase is that in the early days of the pandemic, RFTA reduced services to bare bones levels and gradually increased them in successive stages,” Blankenship said. “With higher levels of service that we are providing now, plus the potential for there to be more economic activity as more people receive vaccinations and the threat posed by the pandemic recedes a bit, we believe a 21 percent increase is reasonable if not conservative.”