RFTA proposes fare increase for popular Maroon Bells bus
People will likely have to shell out a little more green to see the red of the Maroon Bells this summer.
Aspen Skiing Co. will start charging $5 per vehicle for use of the parking garage at Aspen Highlands, the staging area for buses to the Bells. In addition, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority staff will ask its board of directors to consider raising the bus fare for the first time in eight years.
RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said the staff is proposing a fare increase of anywhere from $1 to $3. The current fare is $6 for adults and $4 for children and seniors.
If the board decides to consider the hike, there will be a public hearing at RFTA’s meeting in May, Blankenship said.
RFTA staff is proposing the fare increase because it operates the service at a loss. Last year it lost $88,204 in net operating costs and allocated capital costs, Blankenship said. That loss came despite record ridership.
There were 174,202 passengers — up 41 percent, or 51,074, from the summer before. Part of the increase was due to RFTA starting bus service an hour earlier at 8 a.m. and operating service every day in September instead of just on weekends.
The ridership generated sales of 90,394 bus passes and raised $454,319 in revenue. But operating expenses were $515,828, and prorated capital costs were $26,695.
Next year, RFTA anticipates the deficit growing to $116,800 with no fare increase, Blankenship said.
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer said the Forest Service never intended for RFTA to operate service to the Maroon Bells at a loss. It should be charging what it needs to break even, she said.
Blankenship said a case could be made for some level of subsidy for the bus service. Many Aspen tourists are attracted specifically to the Maroon Bells, while others include a trip to the Bells as part of their visit. That generates spending and sales tax in hotels, restaurants and shops, he said. Therefore, the investment is worth it, he said.
In addition, the bus service is a key component to environmental preservation. The service was started in 1977 as a way to prevent private vehicles from overwhelming the Maroon Valley. The Forest Service prohibits most private vehicles between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the summer. A $10 fee is charged for vehicles when the bus isn’t running.
The RFTA staff will present information to the board of directors at its regular meeting April 14 on how an increase of $1, $2 and $3 would affect the subsidy level. Even with the $3 increase, the subsidy would remain at least $98,347 for this year, according to the staff’s projections. It would be higher with a $1 or $2 increase.
Blankenship said there is a risk of price elasticity — adding too much to the price of parking and riding to the Bells, resulting in a reduction in the number of visitors. The loss of riders could offset the increased revenue from a higher fare.
“We need to be cautious about what we’re charging,” Blankenship said.
Skico must start charging the $5 parking fee at Aspen Highlands to offset the expense of maintaining the garage there, company spokesman Jeff Hanle said. There’s normal wear and tear from the heavy use of people parking there to catch the bus, he said.
People staying in Aspen-area hotels and residents of the area always have the option of taking a bus to Highlands and transferring to the Maroon Bells bus to avoid the parking fee.
Schroyer said it’s impossible to determine right now how higher fees will affect visits to the Maroon Bells. She noted many visitors are from outside the valley and may look at the fee as part of their vacation costs.
The Forest Service currently receives 50 cents from each bus pass sold. The federal agency and RFTA are negotiating how that will change if the fare is increased.
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