Transit officials extend free Snowmass-Aspen buses |

Transit officials extend free Snowmass-Aspen buses

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” In the middle of economic turmoil and bad news, local officials have a bit of good news to offer ” the free, all-day bus service between Aspen and Snowmass Village will likely continue at least through the end of September.

That was the consensus Thursday at the Elected Officials Transportation Committee meeting in Aspen, attended by officials from Pitkin County, Snowmass Village and Aspen. The officials agreed in principal to extend the service past its scheduled termination date of June 12.

The free buses have been a successful experiment, according to a presentation to the EOTC by Marc Warner, a Massachusetts transportation consultant. Area business owners like the free service because it encourages more traffic between the two towns, he said.

And riders seemed to appreciate the free service, Warner said, although ridership along the route rose by only about 2 percent between November 27, 2008, the start of the free rides, and now.

Warner maintained that, if the economy had not tanked over the past year ” cutting the number of visitors to the area and, by extension, the pool of potential bus passengers ” ridership might have increased by as much as nearly 16 percent over the same period.

But based on the results of a bus rider survey, Warner recommended the free rides be continued.

The sole dissenter in Thursday’s decision was Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield. He argued that the EOTC had collectively agreed to not make any more decisions about the free bus service until they had discussed a variety of big-picture issues, including what it would mean to keep paying the roughly $400,000 a year to provide the free service.

“I’m not going to be able to support this,” Hatfield told the others at the table, calling the decision to keep the service going an example of “creeping incrementalism.”

“You may as well just piss all the money away,” he said, referring to the EOTC’s mission of deciding how to spend roughly $1.5 million a year in sales tax revenues dedicated to transportation.

Among the ramifications of that funding, as noted by Hatfield and others, is the amount of money that the EOTC will have available to pay for a new Entrance to Aspen configuration of roads and bridges. Aspen has struggled for years to find a better route into town for Highway 82 than the existing S-curves.

An environmental impact statement issued by the Colorado Department of Transportation calls for construction of a new highway into town from the Maroon Creek Roundabout, cutting across the Marolt Open Space and connecting directly to Main Street across a new bridge over Castle Creek.

According to a memo prepared by county treasurer Tom Oken, that new configuration, known as CDOT’s “preferred alternative,” would cost anywhere from $50 million to $61 million.

Oken estimated that, if the EOTC continues to pay for the free bus service, it will have the ability to come up with roughly $18 million in 2012 to pay for an Entrance to Aspen project. That sum would include some $13.3 million in bonds and $4.7 million in accumulated EOTC funds.

If the free buses are not paid for out of EOTC funds, Oken estimated, the committee would have roughly $20 million in funding capacity in 2012 to pay for a new entrance to town, still far short of the amount needed.

The only new entrance arrangement that the EOTC could pay for, regardless of funding for the free bus service, would be what is known as the “reversible lanes” option, in which Castle Creek Bridge would be expanded to three lanes, two of which would be reversed to accommodate rush-hour traffic in the morning and evening. That option is estimated to cost nearly $8 million, Oken said.

In addition to agreeing to extend the free service until the end of September, the EOTC members agreed to hold a wide-ranging “vision meeting,” possibly in late August, at which topics such as the free bus service and the committee’s capacity to fund future transportation projects will be high on the agenda.

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