Free fares just the ticket for boosting Ride Glenwood
Buoyed at least in part by a switch to free service, Ride Glenwood Springs saw a 43 percent boost in passengers in 2005.Ridership numbers more than doubled the last two months of the year, compared to November and December of 2004.The increases follow a decision by City Council early in the year to eliminate fares, increase route frequency and reduce the coverage area to the core parts of town.Total ridership last year was more than 210,000, compared to 146,361 the previous year.Ridership numbers immediately spiked in March, following the changes in fares and service, reaching 17,847, compared to 13,252 a year earlier.Ridership was only about 2,100 passengers higher in April, compared to April 2004. But as the year went on, the 2005 gains began to become much larger.In November, 21,723 people used Ride Glenwood Springs, compared to 10,281 the previous November. In December, 24,274 took the in-town bus, up from 11,277 in the same month a year earlier.”November and December were outstanding, and of course we had a little help with the $3 gas,” said City Council member Chris McGovern, a chief proponent of last year’s changes to the bus service.Gasoline costs that topped $3 a gallon and a resurgent local economy boosted valleywide RFTA ridership, but the increases didn’t compare to those for Ride Glenwood Springs. RFTA ridership on the Highway 82 corridor increased 6 percent for the year and 20 percent for December.Last year’s total Ride Glenwood Springs ridership wasn’t as high as before the economic slowdown earlier in the decade. Dan Blankenship, chief executive officer of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which contracts with the city to provide the in-town bus line, said 225,995 used it in 1999.Ridership numbers fell off slightly in 2000, but then significantly from 2002-2004. The lowest ridership was 139,232 in 2003. However, the drop came after the city had begun a less-used service to the Community Center. At the same time, it coordinated its buses with RFTA’s valley service along some routes so passengers were able to ride one bus or the other every 30 minutes. The result was an expanded service area and no net loss in total ridership within the city, a RFTA analysis found.Early last year, City Council decided to make Ride Glenwood Springs free, discontinue service to the residential portion of south Glenwood Springs, concentrate on service to the main corridors and increase route frequency to every 20 minutes. The goal was to boost the ridership return on the city’s investment in Ride Glenwood Springs. As of last year, the city was collecting about $550,000 for the system from a transit tax. However, before the changes it was spending about $800,000 on the service and having to subsidize it with other city funds.McGovern said the combination of last year’s changes contributed to the growth in passengers.Council member Dave Merritt, who opposed the cut in the service area, said he’s glad to see the rising numbers but thinks the free ridership and high cost of gas are the main reasons.He doesn’t think the increased service had much to do with it. As it turned out, the city later had to back off to 30-minute service because it sometimes was taking that long for RFTA to run the routes thanks to construction and high traffic.Blankenship said ridership might have gone higher yet had the city continued service to south Glenwood and kept the routes on a 30-minute frequency.”They disenfranchised, by discontinuing service out there, a significant number of people who are locals,” he said.McGovern said ridership in that part of town didn’t justify the cost of continuing service there.Merritt continues to hope service can be restored to south Glenwood, where the city is concerned about a growing traffic problem. Meanwhile, McGovern hears from bus riders that they liked the 20-minute service.”Hopefully we can figure out something to get that back,” she said.While waiting for a bus recently, Matthew Cloud of Glenwood Springs said he appreciates Ride Glenwood Springs, especially with his car in the repair shop. But he said he really liked the more frequent service.”It made it a lot quicker. It made it a lot easier to get around,” he said.Dolly Leavitt, of New Castle, said she understands the reasons the city went back to 30-minute service.And she added, “We like the price.””Yeah, the price is good,” Cloud said.But he said he didn’t mind paying the $1 fare before, and said if restoring the fare could bring back 20-minute service, “I’d pay the extra buck.”Blankenship said the city offered free bus service during the summer of 1999, contributing to that year’s big ridership. Then City Council considered ending the bus service, and people offered to pay a fare to help preserve it, he said. Blankenship said the city then started charging even higher fares than before, but ridership didn’t drop much because the free fares had gotten people used to riding the bus.”Even after the fare went up they continued to use it,” he said.
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