Speedier bus service in the Roaring Fork Valley will first require rapid construction.
Work on the infrastructure for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority's bus-rapid transit system, or BRT, is about two-thirds complete overall, but still requires the completion of some major projects on both ends of the valley and in the middle. With the arrival of spring, the final push is on.
"It's going to be a race to the finish from here on out," Mike Hermes, BRT project manager, told the RFTA board of directors Thursday at a meeting in Carbondale.
Motorists and bus riders are seeing construction on Highway 82 at the Aspen airport, where installation of a pedestrian underpass has only just begun, to be followed by construction of BRT stations on either side of the highway. The underpass is not a RFTA project, but it must come first.
The upvalley bus station at the airport has been relocated to the airport frontage road, and RFTA buses are now detouring off the highway there; they will continue to do so until the new station is built.
The construction zone in Glenwood Springs is at 27th Street, where BRT stations and a park-and-ride lot must be built.
In the midvalley, at El Jebel and nearby Willits, multiple projects are under way. Construction of a Highway 82 underpass at Willits has begun; installation of bus stations on either side of the highway there will follow. In addition, a park-and-ride lot just off the highway at the main El Jebel intersection is being built, and one of two needed BRT stations in El Jebel is under construction.
Progress in El Jebel, where permit issues slowed things down, is the area of greatest concern, Hermes said.
"That's where we've kind of fallen behind," he said. "We should be 50 percent done and we're 2 percent."
Nonetheless, Hermes said he expects work to catch up quickly, particularly since Gould Construction is not the contractor on the airport work. The underpass and bus stations there were combined into one project, and the work was awarded to another contractor, allowing Gould to focus its efforts elsewhere. A downvalley BRT station in Basalt also needs to be finished.
"Overall, I think we're OK," Hermes said.
Commuters don't seem to be clear on what exactly is generating all the construction work, some RFTA board members suggested.
"I think people forgot what they said 'yes' to, honestly," said Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, who chairs the board. "People really don't remember what this is."
"I don't think people really understand or appreciate all the work RFTA is doing to get the BRT program going up and down the valley," said Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman, also a board member.
They will be reminded soon, according to RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship.
Much is currently in play as RFTA prepares to launch BRT, which will be called VelociRFTA. The $46 million system, scheduled to be operational in September, will feature high-tech buses and stations with the intention of providing faster service along Highway 82 between Aspen and Glenwood Springs.
The marketing of VelociRFTA and what it means for riders will ramp up this summer, Blankenship said.
The goal is getting passengers to walk, ride a bike or drive to a park-and-ride lot to access the stations, but RFTA is studying "feeder routes" to bring people to the stations, as well, according to Blankenship. Smaller buses could circulate through municipalities to bring passengers to the BRT stations. What sort of fare would be charged for the short ride hasn't been determined.
For some riders, who are used to boarding an express bus that swings through their neighborhood (Blue Lake in El Jebel, for example), things will change.
"There will be people who have their pet express bus who won't have that any more," Blankenship said. "Our goal is convenient service for the greatest number of people."
Also coming this summer is installation of vending machines at the stations, where riders can buy bus passes. The first one is likely to be installed at Rubey Park, Aspen's bus terminal, in June, Hermes said.
VelociRFTA buses will be outfitted with bike racks that accommodate just two bikes instead of four - a reduction that some board members predicted will cause problems.
The buses will run with greater frequency, though, and local buses that aren't part of the BRT system will still have space for four bikes, Blankenship pointed out. In addition, RFTA may insert its Bike Express - a bus designed to carry multiple bicycles inside - into the VelociRFTA schedule, he said.
Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot, a RFTA board member, suggested the "real-time" bus information that the BRT stations will provide include information about whether the next bus to arrive will have bike-rack space available.
"I think that's a great suggestion," said Aspen Councilman Steve Skadron.
That may be possible, but probably not the day the system is launched, Blankenship said.
There are several considerations in limiting VelociRFTA bike racks to two bikes, including the desire to keep the buses moving on schedule, he explained. Putting bikes on buses and taking them off - a task handled by the passengers themselves - can be time-consuming.
"I think the bike thing is a big deal in this valley," Whitsitt said. "But I also see Dan's point. We're calling this bus rapid transit. We need to be careful not to degrade the rapid part of BRT."
The new bus system will be a work in progress after it launches, Blankenship predicted. There are likely to be many refinements once it's operational.
"It may not be ideal or perfect on day one, but we've got a great platform and we'll be able to tweak it, modify it, further on," he said.