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RFTA buses maxed out

Surging bus ridership finally has overwhelmed the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

CEO Dan Blankenship said Monday the agency will need additional revenues ” possibly from increased sales taxes in the Roaring Fork Valley ” if demands keep growing at the current rate. Without added revenues, it will be forced to “temper” expectations.

“It’s important for the public to understand we do have limits,” Blankenship said.

RFTA hauled a record 4.45 million passengers last year. That was an increase of 357,754 passengers, or nearly 9 percent, over ridership in 2006. The agency’s goal has been to increase annual ridership by 1.75 percent. That ridership includes all service between Aspen and Rifle.

The surge has continued this winter because poor driving conditions on Highway 82 have made some people skittish about driving their personal vehicles. High gas prices, loss of parking in Snowmass Village and higher parking fees in Aspen also have contributed to the increase, according to Blankenship.

Some passengers have been forced to stand on buses during peak commuting times this winter. RFTA brass has been fielding complaints about crowding.

“RFTA staff has done an outstanding job managing equipment and limited personnel resources as efficiently as possible, so as to help reduce the crush loads during peak commuting hours,” Blankenship wrote in a memo to RFTA’s board of directors.

“However, the organization is straining at the limits of its capability and it is clear that in order to keep up with the phenomenal rate of ridership growth, additional staff and/or vehicles with more capacity will be required.”

Blankenship told The Aspen Times that part of the challenge is finding enough drivers to meet demand. RFTA paid $651,000 in overtime to bus drivers last year to beef up staffing. Mechanics earned $140,000 in overtime.

As a short-term fix, Blankenship wants the board to approve the purchase of two used buses with a greater capacity than most of RFTA’s fleet. He wants to add two 57-passenger buses by the end of this month. Most of current buses hold between 36 and 43 passengers.

To meet growing demand beyond this winter, RFTA needs affordable housing to make it easier to attract and retain drives and mechanics, additional space to park and maintain buses, more workers and managers to support a larger operation, and competitive pay.

“Existing resources will not support all of these recommendations,” Blankenship’s memo said. He urged the board to decide at a retreat scheduled in March to decide if it will pursue additional funding in November 2008 or “accept that RFTA does not have the ability to absorb infinite increases in the rate of passenger demand absent additional resources.”

RFTA was already planning an expansion to a system called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It also is known as “RFTA on steroids.”

That system would feature more comfortable buses and stations, additional park-and-ride lots, expanded bus lanes and other highway features designed to reduce the time buses need to travel the valley. Another key would be adding more buses that make direct trips between Aspen and destinations downvalley.

RFTA has been phasing in those improvements, but the soaring ridership is making it consider accelerating the plan, Blankenship said. There is a catch to doing too much too soon. Federal funds were being counted on to fund RFTA on steroids. If RFTA funds a lot of the improvements itself, federal officials might decline to issue grants, Blankenship said. That could saddle local governments with the entire bill.

The debate on how to proceed might begin as soon as Thursday when RFTA’s board of directors has its regular monthly meeting.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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