RFTA targets Sept. 2013 to complete its expansion
July 15, 2011
ASPEN – The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) is finally ready to roll on its $46 million bus system expansion, but its ability to complete the project within budget and by Sept. 1, 2013, depends on local governments, the project leader said Thursday.
Mike Hermes said RFTA needs approvals from six municipal and county governments in the valley for 18 bus rapid transit (BRT) stations and park-and-rides planned from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. In short, the agency is getting a super-sized taste of what it is like to be a developer in the valley.
Unlike a private developer, RFTA is getting a streamlined process. Most of the local governments are reviewing the construction proposals under a “Location and Extent” process, often granted to public entities like schools.
“In order to keep the BRT project on schedule and on budget, it has become critical that RFTA move through these local processes as quickly and smoothly as possible,” Hermes wrote in a memo to RFTA’s board of directors. “To date, planning staff from all local jurisdictions have worked with RFTA to streamline their local community development processes whenever possible and have worked to accommodate RFTA in what has proven to be a very complicated undertaking.”
In an interview Thursday, Hermes said RFTA lost any time cushion built into the project because it took the federal government so long to award a $25 million grant. Another $21 million in local funds will be spent on the project.
The federal funding was announced last month by the Federal Transit Administration, and RFTA should have the funds in hand within 15 to 30 days, according to Dan Blankenship, RFTA chief executive officer. The delay of the award was a result of Congress’s taking so long to agree on a budget.
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Hermes said there is no margin for error in the review process, acquisition of land or construction.
“At this point, anything more than small delays in any part of the project could prove fatal to the project time line and delay the project opening date,” Hermes wrote to the RFTA board.
Here’s what RFTA must accomplish:
• Acquire vacant land for new park-and-ride lots in Glenwood Springs, at 27th Street, and in El Jebel, where restaurants ranging from Wiegner’s to Mermaid’s and Cilantro once were, on the southeast side of the main intersection.
• Acquire land for the expansion of the existing park-and-ride on the south side of Highway 82 at Basalt.
RFTA has submitted appraisals of the targeted properties to the federal government. It cannot start negotiations until the feds sign off on the price. RFTA cannot seek local land-use approvals for improvements at those sites until it has acquired the land.
• Construct new, beefed-up bus stations on both sides of Highway 82 at Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, El Jebel, Willits, Basalt, the Aspen Airport Business Center and Buttermilk, as well as one station at Brush Creek Road-Highway 82.
Hermes said the new bus stops will be comfortable, inviting and safer than most of the existing areas. “Some of our bus stops are a stump and a sign by the side of the road,” he said.
• Acquire 18 new buses. The manufacturer needs a notice to proceed, which RFTA will issue once the FTA grant is in hand. It takes 540 days to build and deliver the buses, according to Hermes.
• Alter some stop lights to give “signal priority” to buses. In one scenario, the lights will sense a bus approaching the intersection and hold the green light longer so the bus can proceed. In another scenario, the light will sense a bus waiting at a red light and trigger a cycle sooner to give the bus a green light.
The project will run more comfortable buses more frequently between major stops in the valley. The frequency will likely be boosted to every 10 minutes during the summer and winter peak seasons, Hermes said. The idea is to try to make the bus system more competitive with driving personal vehicles.
Utility relocation is already under way at some construction sites and an official kickoff of the project will be held in August, Hermes said. However, the construction project won’t be put out for bid until November, and the bulk of work won’t be under way until 2012. Hermes said he remains confident the expansion will be complete by Sept. 1, 2013.
“I think the hardest part of the project is over, for the most part,” he said, referring to the planning and design.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will invite U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., to the kickoff ceremony for its expansion project in August, even if he wasn’t entirely on board with the undertaking.
Tipton represents the 3rd Congressional District, which includes most of the Roaring Fork Valley. He declined to sign a letter this spring that urged the Federal Transit Administration to award a $25 million grant to RFTA as quickly as possible. U.S. senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet signed the letter along with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis.
Tipton’s office said at the time that the congressman supported access to mass transit and the general concept of the expansion, but he was against the release of $25 million without the ability of Congress to examine the grant and possibly cut items. As an example, Tipton opposed adding wireless Internet capability to the buses, his spokesman said. That is a $15,000 item, of which the federal government will cover 60 percent, or about $9,000, in the cost-sharing arrangement.
RFTA is holding no grudges against Tipton: “We will be inviting all politicians in the valley, congressmen, governor of Colorado, Colorado Department of Transportation, (the Federal Transit Administration ), subcontractors and all citizens of the valley – everyone,” said Mike Hermes, the RFTA staffer overseeing the expansion project. “It’s going to be a big shindig.”
The shindig is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 27.
– Scott Condon