RFTA will cut Aspen-area bus service further on Monday

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
A rider alert is posted on the fare box of RFTA buses on Thursday, March 12, 2020. The alert urges passengers to not get on the bus if they are experiencing respiratory issues. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The region’s public bus system will scale back to “bare bones” service on Monday after a proposal to cease operations altogether failed on Friday.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s staff already decreased service once on March 23 due to declining ridership. CEO Dan Blankenship was preparing a second service cut to what he called phase 3 or bare bones service. Before implementing the cut, he asked the board of directors if they wanted to suspend operations during the coronavirus health crisis.

The board voted 4-3 in a special meeting Friday to suspend service, but the motion failed because it required supermajority approval. RFTA has eight member jurisdictions. Many issues require supermajority approval of six votes.

A spirited debate Friday morning showed the division on the issue. RFTA held a virtual meeting so staff and directors didn’t have to physically gather. The public was able to listen to the remote meeting.

“We are in a state of emergency.” — Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman

“I’ll be the fly in the ointment. I don’t think RFTA is an essential service at this time,” said Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes.

The stay-at-home orders that have been issued by the state of Colorado and a stronger version approved by Pitkin County reduce the need for bus service, Godes said. Hospitals urge their employees to avoid taking public transportation at this time because of the risk of being infected with the virus, he said.

In addition, Godes said it appears the Roaring Fork Valley is headed toward exponential growth of COVID-19 cases, so RFTA would be better off shutting down bus service now rather than waiting for 10 days or so and risking playing a part in the spread.

Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt concurred.

“We cannot be screwing around with this when exponential growth can knock this valley down,” she said.

Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman agreed with the shutdown.

“We are in a state of emergency,” he said. “This virus will surge. We need to do everything we can to slow this surge down.”

Even with a first phase of reduced service, RFTA is still hauling about 2,000 passengers per day system wide, he noted. “That’s still a big number,” Newman said.

On the flip side were local elected officials who felt the reduced service should be maintained for workers trying to reach essential businesses such as grocery stores and people who do not have a personal vehicle to get to the grocery stores or pharmacy. That includes some elderly folks.

Aspen Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she would like to see some level of service maintained, if RFTA is confident of its efforts to keep drivers and passengers safe from the spread of the virus. She said there are currently about 50 businesses still operating in Aspen that have been deemed essential.

“I think it would be a mistake to curtail all public transportation,” she said.

Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler also supported maintaining a level of service for those who depend on RFTA.

Ed Cortez, a RFTA driver and president of the local chapter of a union representing the drivers, said he hears a mix of comments from the members.

“Yesterday I received seven calls from drivers who, frankly, are freaking out,” Cortez said. On the other hand, other drivers are willing to stick it out.

“Our drivers are ready to do the job if that’s your decision,” Cortez said.

The union and RFTA worked about four weeks ago to create protocols designed to prevent the spread of the virus on buses and facilities. The buses in operation get fogged with a virucide every day. Facilities such as bus stops are getting extra cleaning. Seats nearest the drivers are roped off to create social distancing. And lately, buses with doors further back in the passenger compartment are being used to promote the distancing.

RFTA has reported 17 employees, including nine drivers, have recently reported having symptoms consistent with COVID-19. It’s not known where they were infected. One driver was taken to the hospital last weekend because of severe symptoms.

Suzuho Shimasaki, deputy director of Pitkin County Public Health Department, said department officials feel RFTA is taking appropriate precautions to keep people safe while still operating. The health order crafted by Pitkin County specifically deemed RFTA an essential service, she noted.

After about 60 minutes of debate, Whitsitt made a motion to temporarily cease all service as of Monday and review the decision on April 17, when Pitkin County’s stay at home order is currently scheduled to end. Whitsitt was joined by Newman, Godes and Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson to cease service. Opposing were Mullins, Butler and New Castle Mayor Art Riddile.

Once that motion failed for lack of a supermajority, Blankenship confirmed with the board that he would proceed to phase 3 service reductions on Monday.

His memo to the board outlined the cuts and said the remaining service as of Monday will be:

• Valley service once an hour each direction beginning at 4 a.m. from Glenwood Springs and ending at 11:15 p.m. from Aspen. Last upvalley trip from Glenwood is at 9:00 p.m.

• No Express service.

• Only 6:15, 6:30, 6:45 and 7:15 a.m. upvalley BRTs will operate in the morning

• Only 4 p.m., 4:30, 4:45, 5:00 p.m. downvalley BRTs will operate in the afternoon.

• Only two trips to and from Rifle in the morning only.

• Only two trips to and from Rifle in the evening only.

• Snowmass service once an hour from Brush Creek Park and Ride from 6:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m.

• COA service modified starting at 8:00 am and ending at 8:00 pm.

• Burlingame service reduced to once an hour.

The service reduction will reduce the need for drivers to 48 per day, though more bodies will be needed to cover all shifts, seven days per week.

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