Roaring Fork Valley’s regional bus ridership down by 2 million due to pandemic |

Roaring Fork Valley’s regional bus ridership down by 2 million due to pandemic

Riders in masks wait for their buses at Rubey Park in Aspen on Wednesday, August 12, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

RFTA’s ridership has plummeted by more than 2 million riders so far this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout but the public bus agency does not plan to slash the budget in 2021.

Year-to-date through August, RFTA had hauled just shy of 2 million passengers system-wide. At the same time in 2019, it hauled just under 4 million passengers.

RFTA cracked the 5 million passenger barrier for the fourth straight year in 2019. Ridership crashed in 2020 when ski areas were abruptly ordered to close in mid-March. RFTA slowly ramped up service in phases as the pandemic eased over the summer.

The agency, like all business in the valley, faces a lot of uncertainty over the winter. Officials hope to boost capacity and are working on a plan with public health officials.

“Hopefully the winter goes well and we stay open (as a resort),” RFTA financial director Michael Yang said Thursday at a board of directors’ meeting.

Currently, RFTA limits ridership to 15 passengers per bus as a safety measure. That is a third or less of capacity of its models. The agency doesn’t want to make riders wait so it has additional buses on standby at the busiest times at the busiest stations.

“We’re having to back up numerous buses every day,” said the authority’s CEO Dan Blankenship.

So, while riders and revenue have dropped, RFTA’s expenses have increased because more personnel and buses are needed to maintain service.

For 2021, the agency anticipates its estimated service hours will increase 8% from what is projected for 2020 and miles traveled by buses will increase by 20%, according to a draft budget. Both service hours and miles are estimated to be about the same as what was expected for 2020 prior to the pandemic.

Revenue is expected to drop next year. Revenue from fares is projected to fall 59% this year compared with last year. RFTA suspended fare collection from mid-March through the end of July to reduce contact between passengers and drivers.

“For 2021, fare revenues reflect a 17 percent decrease, which assumes the continued impacts from the reduced maximum capacity on buses over the course of the year,” said a memo accompanying the draft budget.

RFTA gets nearly two-thirds of its revenue from sales, use and property taxes. Sales taxes are collected in each of its eight member jurisdictions. Revenue is projected to be down about 1% for 2021, but it’s purely a guess since no one knows if the pandemic will flare up and the economy will fall down.

Property taxes are projected to be flat in 2021. Voters in the member jurisdictions approved a property tax increase in 2018. RFTA collects about $10.5 million annually in property tax revenue.

Garfield County isn’t a member of RFTA but the county government contributed $760,240 for services in 2020. Blankenship said Garfield County currently plans to reduce its contribution to $500,000. He plans to make a pitch to the county commissioners next week for a contribution of $727,000.

“We’ll give it the old college try,” Blankenship said.

Despite the uncertainty about 2021, RFTA’s draft budget anticipates a $1.15 million or 4% increase in general fund operating expenditures compared with 2019 budget. The operating budget is projected at $31.95 million for next year.

The full-time bus drivers, which are expected to number about 158, are entitled to an average raise of 4.2% in 2021 in accordance to their labor contract. Employees who aren’t covered by a collective bargaining unit are scheduled to receive merit raises of as much as 4%.

The number of employees is expected to increase to 355 full-time equivalents next year from 344 this year.