Valley transportation stuck on supply and demand

"The only thing certain is uncertainty“ when it comes to transportation this winter.

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses line up at Rubey Park Transit Center in Aspen. (Aspen Times file photo)

Gone are the days of jam-packed buses full of skiers and snowboarders. So too have the season-long parking permits for some slopeside lots become the lore of yesteryear.

And all those Aspen visitors who usually arrive in the mountains by plane? This year, more of them might be bringing their cars due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

It all adds up to a busload of uncertainly for local transportation officials as the ski season begins this week.

“The only thing that is certain is uncertainty,” said Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA). “This is like an 800-meter dash with hurdles all over the place.”

The biggest question that RFTA faces is one of supply and demand. Buses are limited to half of the standard seated capacity under current COVID-19 restrictions; that’s just 18 passengers on the 40-foot buses that typically service the route between Aspen and Snowmass Village. In normal years, those same buses can hold 36 seated passengers and more than a dozen standing riders.

Day-to-day ridership and demand will be hard to predict, Blankenship said. It depends not only on peak holiday periods but also on COVID-19 restrictions and how much snow is covering the mountain — powder days might be busier than days the slopes are mostly covered in man-made snow as they are now.

Plus, there are only so many buses — and so many drivers — available to keep up with a “dynamic” demand amid capacity restrictions, Blankenship said. This season, that means more passengers could be left behind to wait for the next bus when vehicles max out on capacity.

RFTA will have 17 or 18 extra buses on hand to support the 96 that typically operate in peak periods, compared with just a handful of backup buses in normal years, Blankenship said. But of the more than 100 drivers on staff, upward of 20 could be out of commission at any time abiding COVID-19 precautions.

“Will we have adequate staffing to be able to maintain our services?” Blankenship wondered. “The scale of what we’re doing now is much greater (than it was at the beginning of the pandemic), but we’re limited in terms of how many bus operators we have available, and how many buses.”

Faced with those capacity limitations, some skiers and snowboarders may see driving to the resorts as a viable alternative to the bus.

But parking will be another sticking point this season — not just for locals but for visitors, too. One Nov. 4 national survey by research firm Longwoods International found that nearly a third of the respondents who changed their upcoming travel plans due to coronavirus concerns decided to drive instead of flying to their destination.

Snowmass Village Transportation Director David Peckler expects to see that trend reflected in the local demand for parking, too. Parking spaces in the town’s numbered lots, which are available to some lodging guests and those who purchase seasonal permits, will be in higher demand this year because more visitors will bring cars with them when they check in to their accommodations, Peckler predicts.

And a limited run of roughly 100 senior and “Gold” permits — which are not restricted to Snowmass Village residents — have sold out. Demand for resident parking permits in the town’s numbered lots is “fairly steady” compared with previous years, Peckler said.

That leaves most Snowmass visitors with a choice: Shell out up to $30 to park at the Two Creeks lot or Base Village garage, or park at the free Town Park and Brush Creek lots and take public transportation — either the town-operated Village Shuttle or service provided by RFTA — to get to the slopes. Unlike in previous years, frequent drivers can’t purchase season-long passes to the Two Creeks lot; they’ll need to pay the standard rates or arrive with four or more passengers to qualify for free HOV parking.

This year, early-season conditions and limited snow coverage will keep the Two Creeks chairlift closed for opening day, funneling even more riders onto the Village Shuttle if they want to get to the lifts from the Two Creeks lot. (RFTA does not stop at Two Creeks.)

Some additional parking may open up at Lot C, near the Viceroy Snowmass. And a new “Kiss and Ride” program this year will create drop-off zones throughout Snowmass Village to take some of the pressure off public transportation and demand for the numbered lots near the Snowmass Mall.

But those parking at the Brush Creek and Town Park lots may run into the same possible supply-and-demand problems when they try to hop on a town-operated Village Shuttle or RFTA bus to get to the lifts.

Under current COVID-19 restrictions, the shuttle service can operate at just half the seated capacity: 13 passengers on larger buses and 8 on smaller, van-like vehicles, according to Peckler.

“Obviously, it’s always a concern” when a vehicle that normally holds dozens of passengers is capped at just 13 riders, Peckler said.

The town’s transportation department will try to increase the frequency of service from Town Park to alleviate a backup of riders waiting for transportation. But, like RFTA, the Village Shuttle is stuck on supply.

“We’re putting everything we got on the roads for the most part,” Peckler said.

The parking and transportation game may be just as much a question of good fortune as it is of planning.

In terms of luck, Peckler said, “we may need it.”