RFTA ridership challenges spur finger pointing
CARBONDALE ” Two top officials with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority had a sharp exchange Thursday over the agency’s struggles to provide enough buses for riders this winter.
Arnie Mordkin, a member of RFTA’s board of directors and a Snowmass Village councilman, said it is “disturbing” to him that RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship didn’t foresee some of the increased demand.
“It seems to me we’re a little behind the curve here,” said Mordkin at a meeting of the RFTA board of directors in Carbondale.
Blankenship has cited decreases in day-skier parking at Snowmass Village, higher parking fees in Aspen, soaring gas prices and harsh winter weather for sending RFTA’s ridership skyrocketing.
RFTA hauled a record 4.45 million passengers in 2007. That was an increase of nearly 9 percent over 2006. Buses have been so full during prime commuting hours this winter that some passengers have been forced to stand for extended trips. RFTA took out advertisements apologizing for the inconvenience.
Mordkin claimed Blankenship and his staff should have accounted for the parking space reductions, parking fee hikes and high gas prices because they didn’t come as a surprise.
Blankenship responded that “portions of the criticism are valid.” But he immediately countered that he constantly has warned RFTA’s board that the organization’s capacity is challenged.
In his most recent memo to the board this month, Blankenship said RFTA will be unable to meet future increases in demand for service without additional revenues. Blankenship said, in a somewhat defiant tone while looking at Mordkin, that he couldn’t be held accountable for the unusually cold and snowy weather in December, January and the first part of February, which drove up ridership.
“If I could predict the weather, I wouldn’t be working for RFTA, for sure,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship, who has been a RFTA executive for 19 years and overseen its rapid expansion, said he is known among the staff for getting the most out of the agency’s resources. Then he seemed to issue a challenge to the board by saying “maybe” they could find someone else who could stretch the available resources even further.
RFTA board chairwoman Dorothea Farris defused the discussion before any other board members chimed in. She said RFTA’s funding and potential growth will be the prime topic at a retreat for the board of directors on March 13. At one point, Farris also defended Blankenship by noting that RFTA is facing significant pressure because so many workers in the upper valley are living downvalley and require the buses to get to work.
RFTA’s ridership increased 28 percent over a three-year period ending in 2007. Buses hauled an additional 900,000-plus passenger over that time. If current trends continue, the agency’s growth will be about 33 percent over a four-year period, Blankenship said.
The RFTA board approved a goal in 2004 of increasing ridership by 33 percent over a 15-year period. “As far as the goal is concerned, we’re blowing it out of the water,” Blankenship said.
That fast pace comes at a price, however. The agency is having trouble hiring enough drivers, Blankenship said, and that is leading to passengers standing on crowded buses at busy times.
“Our ability to make everybody happy is hampered by our ability to get people behind the wheel,” he said.
Blankenship and the board members agreed that high demand is a pleasant problem ” better than trying to fill empty buses.
The board will determine at its March 13 retreat if RFTA wants to pursue additional revenues, possibly through sales tax increases in a November 2008 election, or if it should stop trying to accommodate growth in ridership.
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