RFTA eyes bus service cuts this summer due to labor shortage

Agency can’t find enough drivers to cover schedule

Passengers board a RFTA bus to Glenwood Springs from the Eighth Street bus stop in Aspen on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The labor shortage bug spreading among Roaring Fork Valley employers has bit the public bus agency in a big way.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority staff is advising the board of directors to reduce the number of daily bus trips by 72 this summer. That would be a 7% reduction from what is planned. The board will be asked to consider the proposal Thursday in a public hearing at its regular meeting in Carbondale.

“RFTA has been struggling with staffing shortages over the last 18 months as have many of the employers across the nation and within our region,” the staff memo said. “RFTA has accommodated these staffing shortages through reduced service levels during the heart of the global pandemic or by asking more of our workforce.”

The memo continued, “RFTA has been in a non-stop hiring process since the winter of 2020/2021, but has made little progress to adding to our ranks and hitting or maintaining our target of 185 fulltime CDL bus operators.”

In an interview Monday, RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said a number of factors contribute to the inability to hire workers. The lack of affordable housing is a big one.

RFTA has secured 60 to 70 units to lease on a seasonal basis in winters, in addition to the units it owns or has under extended lease, he said. In the summer, many of those 60 to 70 units are unavailable. For example, many units at the Marolt and Burlingame housing complexes are unavailable in summers.

Another big factor is the cost of living in the region. Many prospects don’t accept positions once they learn about inflated prices in the area, Blankenship said. That has also made it tough for RFTA to retain employees. Those problems persist despite what he said is a favorable pay scale.

“We’ve been doing a full-court press and trying everything we can to recruit people,” Blankenship said.

As it stands, RFTA figures it would be at 90% operational readiness for the summer. In other words, it would be 10% below the number of drivers needed to cover the scheduled service. And that’s before any absences, retirements and unexpected issues, Blankenship said.

“Based on current conditions, we need a lot more housing.” — Dan Blankenship, RFTA CEO

The proposed service cuts would put the bus agency at a 105% operational readiness.

The proposed service reductions would affect everything from RFTA’s bread-and-butter Bus Rapid Transit service to Maroon Bells shuttle frequency.

The BRT service makes fewer stops throughout the region between Aspen and points downvalley. As proposed, the number of one-way, daily BRT trips would be reduced to 116 from the planned 149. That’s a reduction of 33 trips or 22%.

The frequency of Maroon Bells shuttles would be reduced from 15 minutes to 20 minutes after 1 p.m. That would reduce daily shuttles to 59 from 64, a reduction of 8%.

Some routes would not be affected, such as the free service in Aspen, Ride Glenwood Springs and the Carbondale circulator.

Ironically, the reduction in service comes at a time when the board of directors has kicked around experimenting with free fares to spur ridership. A bill that passed the state Senate and is expected to pass the state House would provide millions in grants to allow transit operators to provide free service for at least one month during the 2022 and 2023 summers, as outlined by the Colorado Sun. The bill has the support of Gov. Jared Polis.

RFTA’s staff and board have enthusiastically discussed the possibilities of that legislation, but Blankenship said it probably isn’t realistic to consider offering free service — theoretically increasing demand — at a time the agency has to reduce service due to inadequate staffing levels.

The idea of free service would be to encourage long-term changes in patterns and get people to ride buses more frequently. That would be difficult, Blankenship said, if new riders had trouble getting on buses and, if they did board, being forced to stand. That wouldn’t make a good impression.

“I’m not optimistic staff would recommend doing that,” he said. There’s a better chance the agency could plan ahead for a grant for free fares during a portion of summer 2023, he said.

RFTA will look at adding more affordable housing. It owns various pieces of land that may be suitable for development.

“Based on current conditions, we need a lot more housing,” Blankenship said.

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