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In bus vs. rail, bus winning

The debate about whether to build a commuter rail between Aspen and Glenwood Springs has been put to rest for a very long time – and maybe even forever.Local transportation officials say that all of the dollars and attention being showered on local studies are now focusing on ways to enhance the existing bus system.”We had a bus-versus-rail debate going on that was really destructive,” said Roger Millar, a transportation consultant who has been involved in the local rail debate since its modern inception. “Everybody agreed we should have a great transportation system but they were arguing over what we should be driving.”In an interview last week, Millar, who has been involved with the local rail debate since its modern inception in the mid-1990s, and Alice Hubbard, of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, said money politics in Washington, D.C., and transportation politics in the valley convinced decision makers here to drop rail as anything but a long-term goal.Hubbard said a lot of eyes were opened last fall when federal officials poised a simple question to local decision makers: If you could get $150 million from the federal government to build rail, do you have $150 million in state and local funds to match it?The answer in light of rail’s generally dismal record in recent elections was a resounding no, and it helped convince even the most ardent rail supporters to give up their hope for rail in the near or medium term.Officials from the Federal Transit Administration, the primary federal source of money for public transportation, also made it clear that no money is available to build commuter rail in the Roaring Fork Valley for at least the next five to seven years. They advised officials here to try something else called “bus/rapid transit.””The focus has moved away from rail,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris. Farris is one of those ardent rail supporters, and she has been a key player in local transit issues since the mid-1990s.”The word from the feds is funding is available for a system called bus/rapid transit, which can be phased into rail eventually,” she said.Reviving the studyWork on the so-called corridor investment study of the Roaring Fork Valley has thus shifted away from rail as the “locally preferred alternative” and towards maximizing efficiency and service of buses running between Rifle and Aspen.Completion of the corridor investment study and its accompanying draft environmental impact statement, regardless or their focus, is necessary to secure large amounts of federal transportation dollars for either buses or rail. The study was originally commissioned in 1998 by the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, the regional agency that was formed a year earlier by all eight valley governments to purchase and maintain the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad right-of-way along the Roaring Fork River. But there was mistrust from the start.Garfield County withdrew from the holding authority in 1998 over differences about the study and the broader question of what should be done with the right-of-way.Dissension in the ranks of elected officials who remained on the holding authority board made it impossible to overcome sentiment in the community at large that the study’s real purpose was to facilitate construction of a commuter rail system. As a result, the study ground down in a contentious and sometimes nasty transportation debate that dominated the end of the century. By 2000, a series of electoral victories by rail opponents led holding authority board members – elected officials from the participating jurisdictions – away from their initial enthusiasm for rail. Their attention moved toward the idea of forming a regional transportation district that would levy taxes and manage rail. The investment study and the draft environmental impact statement sat unfinished for nearly a year and a half. When work resumed last fall, the focus turned toward enhancing this region’s opportunities for capturing federal transportation dollars that aren’t committed to rail, Millar said. Farris said that after years of divisive politics and regional indecision around the question of rail or buses, elected officials are politically united about the future of transit. It’s the first time in recent memory that any such consensus has existed, and Farris credits it to compromise made by people like her on the pro-rail side and Aspen City Councilman Tony Hershey on the pro-bus side.Rail still in cardsWith direction from the Federal Transit Administration, local transportation decision makers like Farris and Hershey agreed to go after money available for bus/rapid transit systems.Unlike the existing system, which relies mostly on local funding and works well in some areas and not as well in others, Hubbard says bus/rapid transit promises more federal support and a level of service that is more reliable and convenient. But to qualify for the federal dollars, it is important that the corridor investment study comply with the federal government’s standards. “We spent a lot of time working with the transit administration to create a technically sound document,” Hubbard said.Some features of bus/rapid transit include:-Direct, non-stop peak hour “Super Express” service that runs directly without stops between cities, such as Carbondale and Aspen.-All-day express service on Highway 82.-The possibility of a light rail system from Buttermilk to Aspen, which federal officials continue to say has a good chance of securing FTA funding.-Expanded local service within mid-valley communities.-A new set of enhanced transit centers with heated buildings, parking and restrooms that are built at stops that can later be converted to rail stations if necessary.-Special bus bypass lanes at busy intersections and a signaling system that allows bus drivers to change traffic lights from red to green;-Fare collection systems that are more efficient than the one currently in use.-Completion of the trail system along the publicly owned railroad right of way.Farris says a big challenge for transportation officials has been finding a way to utilize the work done on rail (remember the “locally preferred alternative”) in the late 1990s by volunteers, consultants and elected officials who sat on the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority. “This solution honors the work that all those people did over the years,” Farris said. Along with determining the best methods for building bus/rapid transit, the study will include a section on what needs to happen to convert transit to rail in the future.Both Millar and Farris say there will be certain triggers – highway congestion, pollution issues, popular demand – that would force elected officials sitting on RFTA’s board to consider asking voters if they want to pay for a commuter rail system. RFTA is not allowed to build such a system without voter approval. “The great thing about bus/rapid transit is that even if rail is never built, we’ll have a great system,” Millar said.


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