Bus-rapid transit in the Rockies went forward despite free-falling economy
$46 million system between Aspen and Glenwood Springs expected to boost ridership 20% to 30%
by Allen Best
VelociRFTA, called the nation’s first rural bus-rapid transit system, has been operating since September in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. The $46 million project connects Aspen with Glenwood Springs, a 41-mile span with nine stops along the way, giving commuters access to WiFi and other comforts while rivaling travel times of cars, at least those during morning and evening congestion during peak seasons.
But after directors scheduled a tax election in August 2008, the idea looked to have dim chances of moving forward. As major investment banks failed, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama temporarily shelved their campaigns while they assessed the free-fall on Wall Street.
“The bottom had kind of fallen out of the economy, and a lot of people had lost their houses and their jobs. There wasn’t much certainty this thing would pass,” says Jacque Whitsitt, mayor of Basalt and chair of the governing board representing the eight jurisdictions in RFTA.
Whitsitt was in the minority in thinking it would pass. It did, rather handily, with 55 percent of voters in the eight jurisdictions from Aspen to New Castle approving the 0.04 percent tax increase. Those taxes were crucial in providing the 44 percent local match needed for a $25 million federal grant.
Dan Blankenship, director of Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, says voters remember the prodigious snows of the previous winter, which fouled roads and resulted in a record of 4.8 million riders, about a million more than has been average. Surging gas prices that surpassed $4 a gallon in Glenwood Springs and $5 in Aspen also gave many people a vested interest in seeing an improved bus system should they need it again.
And finally, the transit agency was generally highly regarded by constituents.
“While I think there are members of the public that like to criticize us, they do so in a kind of paternalistic way,” says Blankenship. “Most people recognize that we are doing a pretty good job of delivering transit service and the transit service is really needed in our region.”
Absent the $21.2 million in local funds committed to the BRT, the transit agency would have had less chance for full federal funding and a much less ambitious project.
VelociRFTA optimizes new technologies. The agency can now track and manage drivers and buses while they’re on the road, and electronic signs at stops showing the projected arrival of buses—every 10 minutes during rush hour, 15 minutes at midday.
But the greatest advantage of BRT is on the edge of Aspen, where Highway 82 scrunches to one lane and the highway takes a series of 90-degree turns. There, traffic can congeal into slow-moving traffic jams during morning and evening non-rush hours.
Here, buses have a dedicated lane, which will frequently allow them to surpass cars driving from down-valley, despite the stops along the way. Because of this simple fact, Blankenship expects passenger volume to increase 20 to 30 percent during the next few years. RFTA carries 6,800 commuters daily.
Why natural gas?
Natural gas or diesel? In weighing how to fuel the 22 buses for the VelociRFTA fleet, Blankenship and directors found that both are about equal in greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas had two compelling advantages: supplies are local and seem to be secure, whereas diesel prices are more reflective of global supplies and hence supply disruptions. And, at current prices, natural gas provides substantial savings, $275,000 a year out of a total annual operating budget of $27 million.
Noise reduction is another advantage of natural gas. “If you hear a natural gas bus go by at 25 to 30 mph, compared to diesel buses, they’re a lot quieter, and the residents and visitors of Aspen are taking note,” he says.
RFTA also has 90 park-and-ride spaces, some of them wired for electric-car charging. The agency must soon decide whether to charge, and how much. Because parking is at such a premium, it might not be wise to reserve the spaces for EVs if they’re not used, says Blankenship.
Studies quantify benefits of bus services in Colorado
The value of mass transit? It’s not just in big cities, according to a study by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.
The non-profit advocacy group studied three bus-based transit systems in Colorado, using criteria that ranged from reduced greenhouse gas emission to community needs for less parking.
Two of the bus systems, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and the bus service in Grand Junction, yielded strong cost-benefit ratios.
“In 2012, our onboard passengers survey showed that about 68 percent of our 3.9 million riders were people commuting to work,” said Jason White, assistant planner for RFTA. “Bus transit plays a critical role in matching employees with employment opportunities in the valley.”
Bottom line: a $50 million net benefit to communities of the Roaring Fork Valley.
The study also looked at transit in Grand Junction and Fort Collins. In Grand Junction, a smaller system produced benefits of $4 million as measured against costs.
“People often view public transit as an investment that pays off in larger cities,” said Mike Salisbury, the author of the report and a transportation program analyst at SWEEP. “Now that we’ve quantified the benefits, those old assumptions can be laid to rest.”
Fort Collins showed no net-benefit, although Salisbury said he believes the benefits perhaps weren’t fully calculated because of inadequate data.