RFTA chief is money – and knows it | AspenTimes.com

RFTA chief is money – and knows it

Charles AgarAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN Dan Blankenship, chief executive officer of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, is the only man in the valley with his own currency.Fashioned after a $1 bill, the “Blankenbuck” reads: “Redeemable for one ride to any destination in the RFTA system” on the front, and on the back “Un Viaje Gratis” – the Spanish translation.RFTA drivers nicknamed the coupon that agents give passengers in need – or just to say “sorry” – the Blankenbuck.When the bus fails to stop at a designated spot, when a passenger wants to buy a punch pass but misses the office hours, or when a rider washes up at the desk of Rubey Park without a wallet and needs to get home, RFTA staff can offer a Blankenbuck to smooth things out, Blankenship said.”It’s a courtesy pass that we give to people sometimes that have a complaint that was justified,” Blankenship said.The picture on the bill is 14 years old and features a shot of Blankenship “thinner and with more hair,” he said. “But George Washington is moldering in his grave, and they still have a picture of him on the bill.””It’s a PR tool more than anything,” Blankenship said. But RFTA officials sometimes provide Blankenbucks (even season passes) to LIFT-UP or other nonprofits to transport clients.

RFTA staff sometimes hands out books of Blankenbucks to large conference groups or visiting government delegations to highlight the system, but Blankenship said the notes aren’t necessarily for sale.

Blankenship said his staff gives them out only occasionally: “When it just seems like the right thing to do. … I’m doubtful that we’re giving away the farm.”One RFTA ticket agent at Rubey Park said she gives out only a few each year, usually to folks in real need, and stressed that no one can simply come up to her window, demand a free ride and get one.Ridership rising”We’ve seen phenomenal growth in the 18 years I’ve been here,” Blankenship said.As high rents drove workers farther downvalley, transit ridership grew, and city and county officials made RFTA an important part in the solution to the valley’s traffic congestion, Blankenship said.

In 1989, RFTA officials gave a 30 percent to 50 percent discount for multiple-ride punch passes and extended the service to Carbondale. And a half-penny transit tax in 1993 helped fund increased frequency and longer hours of RFTA bus service.”We basically doubled our miles and hours of service,” Blankenship said. And in 1993, bus services extended to Glenwood Springs.”Every improvement has resulted in increased ridership,” Blankenship said.But hard times in 2000 meant higher fares. The recession in 2001, then Sept. 11 and forest fires in 2002 precipitated a major decrease in tourist numbers.

“So we’ve struggled financially and increased our fares accordingly,” Blankenship said. Now the economy is much stronger, he said, and there are more jobs than there are employees in Aspen.Ridership in 2006 increased by 360,000, or 10 percent, to 4.1 million passengers annually. And, rising fuel prices are a strong incentive to use transit.Blankenship said public awareness of dependence on foreign oil and global climate issues is growing. And, maybe, just one Blankenbuck will make a bit of difference.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com.