Congress managed to extend highway funding until May with a last-minute measure on the eve of lawmakers’ August recess, but Michael Bennet, Colorado’s junior senator, wasn’t done talking transportation.
Bennet included the Roaring Fork Valley in his “Infrastructure Colorado: Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and More” tour of the state, with a mobile town hall Tuesday on a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) rapid transit bus.
A small party of RFTA representatives, local politicians and others with stakes in transportation boarded the bus with the senator at Glenwood’s 27th Street Park and Ride just after noon, while others joined on the trip upvalley.
“It’s very unusual for a senator to ride the bus,” observed Elena Wilken, Colorado Association of Transit Agencies executive director, as the bus pulled out of Glenwood.
It’s not the first such event on Bennet’s tour — he kicked it off with a town hall on Denver Regional Transportation District’s light rail on Monday — but the rural setting made for a slightly different angle. Colorado leads the nation for rural bus trips, noted Wilken. A lot of that is due to RFTA, which in 2012 surpassed Colorado Springs’ transit operation to become the state’s second biggest transit agency for ridership and fleet size, behind only Denver’s RTD.
The ranks swelled at Carbondale’s park and ride, where the bike racks were loaded down enough to provoke comment from the assembly. By the midvalley, the back of the bus became so crowded that only folks with local clout managed to squeeze in a question.
Some people boarding the bus on their own business took no notice of the event, while others seized the opportunity to talk transportation. One man observed that, though he had never voted in his life, he made extensive use of RFTA and was glad to see it getting attention.
“I think there’s a regional recognition that public transportation is something that’s really needed,” RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship observed.
Still, rural agencies face big challenges. The senate is considering a stricter definition of Bus Rapid Transit that would likely be out of reach for an operation like RFTA, a move that would could harm funding for the VelociRFTA program.
Bennet worries Washington hasn’t got the message from RFTA’s success.
“The government needs to understand that public transportation is just as important in rural areas,” he said.
He seemed relieved to be out of D.C. and spending some time in the mountains.
“It’s good to be a senator from Colorado in August,” Bennet quipped as the bus neared his stop at the Aspen airport. “You get to wander around a place other people pay good money to visit.”