Guest commentary: Many perks with new bus system

Dan Blankenship and Jacque Whitsitt
Guest Commentary

Questions have arisen lately about the VelociRFTA bus-rapid-transit construction projects under way throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.

Some might have forgotten that, in 2008, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority asked the region’s voters to approve a 0.4 percent sales tax increase and $44.5 million in bonding authority to provide funding for the VelociRFTA bus-rapid-transit project and other capital improvements.

In 2008, RFTA’s ridership soared to a record 4.85 million passengers. There was an epic snow year, and gas prices exceeded $4 per gallon. Throughout much of the year, there was standing room only on RFTA’s commuter-bus services. Riders who experienced the overcrowding understood that fuel prices were likely to spike again and that the capacity and convenience of RFTA’s transit services needed improvement. That’s why voters said “yes” to the VelociRFTA bus-rapid-transit plan even though the economy was melting down.

For the past five years, RFTA has been working to deliver on the promises it made to voters. The VelociRFTA project includes 13 new bus-rapid-transit stations at eight locations, three new park-and-ride facilities and 18 new compressed-natural-gas, low-floor buses. The project has put hundreds of people to work in our valley at a time when the construction industry has been hard hit by the recession.

The VelociRFTA stations, which will open Sept. 3, are attractive, functional and built to last 30 years or more. RFTA worked for many months to determine what local communities desired in the bus-rapid-transit system and came up with features that will live up to those expectations.

The community wants enclosed waiting areas, covered bicycle storage and outdoor seating along with design, safety and technology enhancements. To provide security, emergency call buttons are available at every station. Space was required within the stations to house ticket-vending machines, real-time passenger-information signs, electronic equipment and bus-schedule information. Most of the expensive equipment is stored within the stone icon that bears the RFTA name and lets everyone know where the VelociRFTA bus-rapid-transit service can be found — seriously, it’s not a fireplace! The station platforms are level with bus doors so that passengers can get on and off the buses more easily and rapidly.

Bus rapid transit offers the reliability, convenience and efficiency of rail service by using an array of intelligent transportation-system technologies. RFTA’s new global positioning system will allow riders to monitor the arrival times of buses, in real time, throughout RFTA’s 70-mile service area. Passengers can use computers or smartphones to find out when the next bus will be arriving at their stops. Wi-Fi will be available at the bus-rapid-transit stations and on the VelociRFTA buses. Discounted bus passes will be dispensed by ticket-vending machines at the stations.

The hallmark of the VelociRFTA bus-rapid-transit service will be its convenience. Depending on the season, service at bus-rapid-transit stations will be provided every 10 to 12 minutes during peak hours and every 15 to 30 minutes during non-peak hours over major portions of the day. Bus-rapid-transit service also will be available on weekends during the winter and summer. The anticipated travel time on VelociRFTA buses between Glenwood Springs and Aspen will be about one hour.

The financing was kicked off by the region’s vote of support in 2008 and RFTA’s application for a Federal Transit Administration Very Small Starts grant. In 2011, after successfully completing the FTA’s rigorous and competitive Very Small Starts Project Development process, RFTA was awarded a $25 million grant, which required our local match of $21.2 million. In a few short weeks, RFTA will hold the distinction of becoming the nation’s first rural transit agency to implement a bus-rapid-transit system.

It has been a privilege for the RFTA board and staff to bring the VelociRFTA vision to life. You can familiarize yourself with VelociRFTA by riding free Sept. 3 through 6. Try walking or riding your bicycle to a VelociRFTA station to get some exercise, reduce auto congestion and conserve energy. Check out the bus-rapid-transit stations, plop on an egg, hop on a bright-blue bus, and discover the liberating feeling you can get from a frequent dose of VelociRFTA DNA (don’t need autos)!

Jacque Whitsitt is chairwoman of the RFTA board of directors and mayor of Basalt. Dan Blankenship is CEO of RFTA.