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Transit costs get scrutiny

Allyn Harvey

Consultants and government officials are on the spot this week following the release of operating and maintenance cost estimates for commuter rail and expanded bus service.

Two of the four citizen task forces that have been scrutinizing the information on valleywide transit took a first look at the new estimates Monday night, and the initial reaction included a fair amount of skepticism.

Midvalley task force member Ted Guy, an architect from Basalt, challenged the emphasis consultants put on the per-passenger costs of rail vs. bus, noting the overall cost of operating a train from 2003 through 2020 is significantly higher than the cost of expanded bus service over the same period.

And he stuck to his point in the face of ridership figures that indicate rail will haul 2.4 million more passengers each year, and generate more fares to pay for the increased service.

“The bottom line is, we have a pot that’s 76 million dollars deep that needs to be filled somehow over the next 20 years,” Guy said.

In an interview yesterday, Guy conceded that higher ridership numbers could generate the extra revenue needed to cover the added cost of rail operations. He just wants to take a closer look at the cost study before accepting the idea that rail is more cost efficient on a passenger-by-passenger basis.

“Why won’t they show us the model that was used and all the numbers that went into it?” Guy wondered.

“It will take a lot to convince me that they’ve done all their homework, though to their credit, the consultants have gone back when challenged in the past and provided information to satisfy my questions,” he said.

A task force member from Carbondale wanted a cost comparison of buses and trains carrying the exact same number of passengers over the course of a year. “I don’t feel like I can compare apples with apples until you do that,” she said.

Consultant Roger Millar, who has been advising local governments about transit for several years, told the woman that the model was designed to derive cost figures based on anticipated ridership. Because rail is expected to attract more passengers for a variety of reasons, the study never compares costs based on an equal number of passengers. In 2003, for instance, it’s anticipated that 2.99 million people would ride the train, but only 2.19 million would ride the bus; in 2020, 10.4 million would be riding the train vs. 8.1 million riding the bus.

Another member of the Basalt task force questioned the assumption that everyone riding the bus or taking the train is going into Aspen. “My own observation is that about two-thirds of the people going into Aspen aren’t stopping in the center of town, they’re going on to their service jobs elsewhere,” he said.

Although Millar pointed out that rider surveys conducted by the Roaring Fork Transit Agency, which runs the existing bus service, indicate the vast majority of riders from the mid- and lower valley are bound for Aspen, the man persisted.

“I don’t think you’ve reached believability with this model,” the task force member said. “Therefore, I don’t think you’ve reached believability with the operating and maintenance costs.”

Not everyone, however, was so doubtful of the accuracy of the study. “I think the information is basically sound,” said Greg Baker, a Basalt resident who commutes to work in Aspen. “I think the utility of either system is the same, we just need to see what the voters prefer.”

Millar and the other consultants working on rail found a less skeptical audience yesterday, when they presented the findings to politicians from the upper valley. Most of the questions from the Elected Officials Transportation Committee stayed within the bounds of the information in the study, although politicos from Snowmass Village – County Commissioner Leslie Lamont and Town Councilman Jack Hatfield – spent a considerable amount of time questioning the consultants and government officials working on rail about articulated buses.

They were particularly concerned about the number of articulated buses that would turn up Brush Creek Road to Snowmass Village if bus service is expanded. An articulated bus is longer than a standard bus, with a second section attached with an accordian-like joint that permits it to maneuver around corners.

A considerable amount of time was spent discussing the concept of building a rail system in phases rather than all at once. The study concludes the least expensive option in terms of operations and maintenance, on a per-passenger basis, is rail from Carbondale to Aspen, with buses continuing to Glenwood Springs.

The idea became more palatable to elected officials once they realized that local and state contributions toward building the project – $106 million by current estimates – are far short of the 50 percent “local match” needed to convince the federal government to help pay for construction.

The estimated cost of the commuter portion of the rail – Glenwood to Aspen – is $187 million; the Entrance to Aspen light-rail system, running between the center of town and the airport, is expected to cost $101 million (of which $38 million is for highway improvements made by the Colorado Department of Transportation). About $144 million in local money is needed to entice the federal government to join in.

“We can’t afford to build this system, but we can’t afford not to build it either,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland.


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