Valley bus plan will double ridership | AspenTimes.com

Valley bus plan will double ridership

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will haul a record 4.3 million passengers this year, but that’s nothing compared to what transit planners hope to accomplish within the next 10 to 17 years.

RFTA is working on a plan to substantially improve its service and double its annual boardings no later than the year 2025. If possible, RFTA officials want to accelerate that plan and have it in place within the next decade.

Officially, the plan is called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Unofficially, it’s known by the much catchier “RFTA on steroids.”

Whatever it’s called, the goals are lofty. Transit planners believe improved service could be attractive enough to boost bus ridership to 8.7 million passengers somewhere between 2018 and 2025.

“We will be able to capture more folks and get them out of their cars, hopefully,” RFTA planner Kristin Kenyon said.

While the BRT planning is complex, the concept is simple ” create bus service that competes with private vehicles in terms of convenience, travel time and quality.

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That means building bus stations where passengers are willing to hang out, rather than open-air shelters off the shoulder of Highway 82. It means providing “real time” information on the status of buses. It means using buses and systems that allow people to load quickly and ride comfortably. And it means creating true express service that whisks into Aspen or Snowmass Village from just a couple of major origination points downvalley.

Kenyon said it is vital to add bus service from Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, El Jebel and Basalt that minimizes stops so that passengers don’t spend any more time on the bus ride than they would in a private vehicles.

“It’s an extra layer of service on top of what we’re offering,” she said. “It’s really going to focus on making the trip as quickly as possible.”

A critical part of making the bus an attractive alternative is to give it priority at choke points on Highway 82. The addition of a bus lane on Main Street in Aspen shaved anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes off the outbound commute. Additional projects will add dedicated bus lanes both in and out of Aspen between the roundabout and Buttermilk in the next year.

The cost of RFTA on steroids was estimated at $100 million a few years ago. The price is undoubtedly climbing, but RFTA is already chipping away at the “to-do” list. Kenyon said new buses that are easier to load and have cleaner burning have already been purchased, park-n-ride lots have been opened and bus lanes are being added. Those are examples of expenses for the $100 million system.

A phased implementation will ease the sticker shock. Nevertheless, RFTA is contemplating going to voters in its service area to seek an additional tax ” possibly a sales tax or some type of “visitor” tax.

Ralph Trapani, a former engineer with the Colorado Department of Transportation who headed the expansion of Highway 82 to four lanes, said an investment in mass transit makes sense.

“We’ve probably got all the highway improvements we’re going to see,” said Trapani. “Widening Highway 82 to six lanes, that’s not going to happen.”

Environmental battles aside, the cost would be prohibitive for a state woefully behind in funding highway improvement projects. The state spent $500 million expanding Highway 82 to four lanes. Half of that was spent on the Basalt to Buttermilk corridor, which was completed in fall 2004.

The state transportation department’s planning and funding for the expansion of the highway between Basalt and Buttermilk was predicated on the idea that mass transit would play a key role in handling increased travel demand, said Trapani. RFTA already has played a key role in easing congestion, he said. RFTA’s study estimates that once its Bus Rapid Transit system is fully implemented, it will handle more than 10 percent of total trips on the highway.

Trapani, who now sits on the board of directors of New Century Transportation Foundation, an organization promoting mass transit, said elected officials are taking vital steps necessary to secure federal funds for the Bus Rapid Transit system. The people deciding whether or not to award federal transportation grants will see that the Roaring Fork Valley has added a bus/high-occupancy vehicle lane for morning and afternoon commutes, is adding more dedicated bus lanes and is already investing in buses.

“We’re way ahead of other rural resort communities,” Trapani said.

Trapani said he believes a light-rail system will ultimately be needed in to handle the Roaring Fork Valley’s transportation challenges. Light rail was rejected by voters as a potential option in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the investment in Bus Rapid Transit makes sense because many of the improvements ” like better transit stations and new park-n-rides ” will be needed for light rail, Trapani said.

scondon@aspentimes.com