Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bets big on boosting bus ridership

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Roaring Fork Transportation Authority added 18 buses for its expanded system. The new buses run on compressed natural gas and feature the VelociRFTA logo.
Leigh Vogel/The Aspen Times |

Roaring Fork Valley voters and the federal government took a $46.2 million gamble that a hefty financial investment in an expanded bus system would result in a big increase in ridership.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is 25 days away from launching its expansion, fondly referred to as “RFTA on steroids” but formally known as bus rapid transit.

“The project is nearing completion, and we’re moving forward on all fronts,” said Dan Blankenship, CEO of RFTA, at its monthly board of directors meeting Thursday.

Five years after the project started, construction is on schedule and within the $46.2 million budget, said project manager Mike Hermes. He said about 90 percent of construction will be completed for the Sept. 3 opening.

When the project was first conceived, RFTA’s board of directors set a goal for implementation in 2017, according to Hermes. When RFTA applied for a federal grant, the targeted opening was changed to 2015.

Basalt Mayor and RFTA board Chairwoman Jacque Whitsitt said the project will be completed on time and within budget because of hard work by several staff members.

“I can see the gray hairs of everybody involved,” she said.

The project features 13 new bus stations in the upvalley and downvalley lanes of Highway 82 at several locations between Aspen and Glenwood Springs and 18 new buses converted to run on compressed natural gas.

Aside from the big-ticket items, the project includes several bells and whistles designed to make riding the bus more pleasant and efficient. The stations will have real-time bus monitors so riders will know if their ride is caught in traffic. Ticket vending machines will be installed at eight major stations. A transit signal-priority system will be installed at several traffic signals throughout the valley. The system will sense the buses approaching and keep a signal green longer or cycle to a green light sooner to accommodate them. In addition, some lights will have a bus-preference feature that gives buses a green light before the regular traffic lanes.

A contractor is still trying to get bugs out of the system.

“(Transit signal priority) is sort of the bane of my existence, still,” Hermes said.

The greatest enhancement from the project will be increasing the frequency of service between Aspen and most points downvalley from twice per hour to five or six per hour during peak seasons and peak hours, according to Blankenship. He noted that RFTA saw a 70 percent annual increase — some 1 million passengers — after doubling the frequency of service in 1995.

The latest enhancements are designed to get even more people out of private vehicles and into buses.

RFTA hasn’t set any specific goal for increasing its ridership after launching bus rapid transit. However, the success or failure of the project will be measured in ridership increases, Blankenship said.

RFTA hauled 3,954,226 passengers in 2012, down 4.4 percent from 4,137,905 passengers the prior year. The decline was blamed partially on mild winter weather in January, February and March. When it snows a lot, more people ride the bus. Ridership also tends to increase when gas prices spike.

So far this year, bus ridership is up 1.39 percent, according to RFTA.

The federal government awarded RFTA a $25 million grant for the project. Roaring Fork Valley and New Castle voters approved a sales tax increase to provide local funding to complete the remainder of the project.

When it opens Sept. 3, RFTA will boast the first rural bus-rapid-transit system in the country. To celebrate, the agency is offering the first four days of service, Sept. 3 through 6, free of charge.

There will be a ribbon cutting in Glenwood Springs at the 27th Street Station at 8 a.m. on Sept. 3.

There will be a barbecue at the Willits station, next to Whole Foods Market, from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sept. 6.