RFTA bus service cracks 5 million mark for 4th straight year in 2019

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
People line up to board the velociRFTA bus to Glenwood Springs at Rubey Park in Aspen on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times


Here’s RFTA ridership by the numbers:

2016 5.07 million

2017 5.26 million*

2018 5.21 million

2019 5.47 million

Source: RFTA. *In 2017, an additional estimated 300,000 riders used temporary bus service during bridge construction in Glenwood Springs. The above figures provide what RFTA considers an apples-to-apples comparison.

More than 5 million riders packed onto buses and prevented traffic congestion from getting even worse in the Roaring Fork and Lower Colorado River valleys in 2019.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s preliminary figures show it hauled 5.47 million passengers last year. That is a record for regularly scheduled service, according to Dan Blankenship, the agency’s CEO. The 2017 number was higher when special, temporary service implemented to mitigate construction on the Grand Avenue Bridge in Glenwood Springs was added. RFTA estimated 300,000 passengers rode the temporary service during the bridge construction, he said.

For an apples-to-apples comparison, ridership in 2017 was about 5.26 million compared with 5.47 million in 2019, Blankenship said.

Perhaps more important, 2019 was the fourth consecutive year that RFTA’s ridership exceeded 5 million passengers, making the mark the new norm.

Blankenship said above-average snowfall helped boost the 2019 numbers.

“When it snows, more people use transit,” he said in an email between staff meetings Wednesday. “2019 was a good snow year, as 2020 is shaping up to be as well.”

He pointed to a strong regional economy as another factor in the high ridership. In addition, RFTA added service last year after voters approved a property tax increase in the November 2018. The additional service is part of RFTA’s Destination 2040 strategic plan.

In April, the bus agency added half-hour local bus service during its hours of operation between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, except for offseason weekends.

Also in April, it added weekend Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, service during offseason. BRT is RFTA’s bread-and-butter service for valley commuters. Buses run frequently and make fewer stops than the local service.

In December, RFTA implemented higher frequency service on the Grand Hogback line between New Castle and Glenwood Springs.

Also new this winter is an expansion of Aspen Skiing Co.’s contract with RFTA to provide bus service on the Flyer between the Brush Creek Road/Highway 82 lot and Aspen Highlands. Blankenship said ridership in general on free skier shuttles paid by Skico was up in calendar year 2019 due to plentiful snow.

RFTA’s ridership has grown about 8% since it first cracked 5 million passengers in 2016. While RFTA officials anticipate it will continue to grow because of the new service, Blankenship said lots of variables factor into ridership and make trends tough to predict.

“Overall ridership will depend on a variety of factors — weather, the economy, employment, commercial and residential development and population growth,” he said.

The agency has been able to handle the growth thanks in large part to its Destination 2040 plan and the extra funding provided by taxpayers. While many businesses are struggling to find employees in the Roaring Fork Valley, Blankenship said RFTA did a “commendable” job of recruiting an adequate number of bus drivers and mechanics thanks to competitive wages and benefits.

“RFTA is also in a position, along with grant revenue it is receiving, to replace vehicles and add expansion vehicles to the fleet,” Blankenship said. “In addition, we are working to expand and modernize facilities to accommodate existing and forecasted fleet requirements.”

RFTA’s service is widely credited with helping Aspen keep below the 1993 target of traffic levels at Castle Creek Bridge. Even so, the average number of vehicles entering and leaving town on a daily basis was 21,105. That translates into 7.7 million trips annually.

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