August 30, 2013

RFTA picking up pace with new express bus service

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Ken Eielson, a RFTA bus driver, demonstrates how a new push-button system activates audible route information at the main bus stop at the Brush Creek intercept lot. Eielson was spending the afternoon working as an ambassador for RFTA, talking to bus riders and sharing information about the new VelociRFTA BRT project. Directly to the left of Eielson is an automated ticket system, which is scheduled to come online Tuesday.

Chris Council/Aspen Daily News

Ken Eielson, a RFTA bus driver, demonstrates how a new push-button system activates audible route information at the main bus stop at the Brush Creek intercept lot. Eielson was spending the afternoon working as an ambassador for RFTA, talking to bus riders and sharing information about the new VelociRFTA BRT project. Directly to the left of Eielson is an automated ticket system, which is scheduled to come online Tuesday.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority on Tuesday will flip the switch and transform from an old-school bus operation to Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT.

From Tuesday through Friday, bus rides will be free to the public. There will be ribbon-cuttings and “RFTA Ambassadors” at the new BRT stations along Highway 82 to answer questions and assist riders.

It’s an important occasion for the valley and, if the system attracts riders the way it’s supposed to, the start of a major transition in how people move between Aspen, Glenwood Springs and the communities between.

“My hope is lots of people who have never ridden the bus will try it out, take a ride,” said Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, chair of the RFTA board of directors. “When they turned on light rail in Denver, the parking lots were overflowing.”

The $46 million system is also known as VelociRFTA, a variation on the name of the speedy, Cretaceous-era velociraptor, to emphasize the speed with which riders will move up and down the valley. And yes, those ovoid rocks at the fancy new stations are supposed to look like dinosaur eggs; take a seat on one while you’re waiting for your bus.

But setting aside the hype, branding and hefty price tag, what will happen on Tuesday? How will the rider’s experience change?

Perhaps the easiest way to understand BRT is to imagine the RFTA system as a network of express buses and local buses, the latter making more stops than the former and thus moving slower.

Now imagine the express buses disappearing, and in their place a rail-like system of quiet, new, blue buses that run on compressed natural gas and make just eight stops between Glenwood and Aspen.

The design and functionality of the buses, the stations, the lanes and even stoplights on 82 should enable passengers to travel 40 miles from 27th Street in Glenwood Springs to Rubey Park in Aspen in one hour.

“The goal in developing BRT has been to shave seconds off the travel time wherever we can — 20 seconds here, 30 seconds there — so we can make the travel time comparable to driving your own automobile,” said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship.

Blankenship expects glitches to occur in BRT’s first few days, but also expects the speedier, technologically sophisticated service eventually to win people over.

Fares remains the same

Don't look now, but there is a VelociRFTA behind you.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Don't look now, but there is a VelociRFTA behind you. Smith / Aspen Journalism

For now, the cost of a RFTA ride will remain the same. A cash ride from Glenwood to Aspen will be $7, but various pass options can reduce the price to $5 (value pass) or even $2.84 (annual pass).

The new 35-passenger, low-floor buses should ease passenger loading because riders, instead of climbing stairs, will step straight from the curb edge onto the bus.

The buses also will be more frequent. Where two upvalley express buses now stop in Basalt between 7 and 8 a.m., BRT will offer five to six buses during the same period.

A detailed VelociRFTA schedule is available at rfta.com, but upvalley commuters should know the first BRT bus leaves Glenwood Springs for Aspen at 4:27 a.m., while the last higher-frequency rush-hour bus of the morning leaves Glenwood at 8:17 a.m., reaches Basalt by 8:46 a.m., and then rolls into Aspen at 9:12 a.m. Afternoon downvalley commuters will find the higher-frequency faster buses leaving Rubey Park in Aspen between 3:16 p.m. and 6:18 p.m.

BRT will still offer regular service in non-peak times throughout the day, although the frequency will be lower.

Hi-tech stations

The new BRT stations have ticket machines and wi-fi.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

The new BRT stations have ticket machines and wi-fi. Smith / Aspen Journalism

The BRT stations and buses, both equipped with wireless Internet service, will enable riders to use smart phones and laptops, not only to get their work done but to track the progress of buses toward the station using myrfta.com. For those without a device, an LED display at the station will provide real-time updates on the next bus.

A global positioning system will track the location of all buses, enabling riders to leave home at the right time. Ticket-vending machines will also dispense passes with a variety of prices, for everyone from one-time riders to regular commuters.

“Our hope is to get more people to move to the discount passes, because dollar bills slow down the boarding process,” Blankenship said.

The brains of these modern stations are housed in the stone “chimneys” at each location. Heated sidewalks will help keep the stations safe during winter, and bike racks will encourage commuters to leave their cars at home entirely.

In Aspen, WE-Cycle bike-sharing stations are available at Rubey Park and Paepcke Park for those who want to pedal to their final destinations.

The most important time-saving feature of BRT is the reduced number of stops. From the Glenwood 27th Street BRT station (formerly a car dealership), VelociRFTA vehicles will make just eight stops, at Carbondale, El Jebel, Willits, Basalt, Brush Creek intercept lot, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, Buttermilk, and Aspen proper.

Of course, this reduction in stops will force many passengers to adjust their commuting routines.

Many stops where express buses once picked up passengers will now see only local buses. For example, BRT will stop at a new El Jebel park-and-ride along the highway, but will not circle through Blue Lake. In Carbondale, BRT will briefly leave Highway 82 for one stop at the park-and-ride on Highway 133.

In Basalt, commuters will no longer be able to catch express buses on Two Rivers Road across from Town Hall. Riders who have traditionally caught their Aspen-bound bus in downtown Basalt will have several options:

• Catch a local bus at the same location, ride that bus to the park-and-ride on Highway 82 and catch BRT there.

• Catch a local bus at the same location and ride that slower bus upvalley.

• Walk, bike or drive the additional distance to the park-and-ride and catch BRT there.

Travel time along the main line of Highway 82 will be much faster with BRT, but commuters may have to travel farther to reach their closest BRT station. Similarly, BRT may drop them off at a station that’s farther from their workplace or final destination.

“BRT is intentionally rail-like in terms of operations — a trunk line without a lot of deviations,” Blankenship said. “We’re trying to make it more convenient in terms of travel time, but it may be a little less convenient in the time required to get to or from the stops or stations.”

BRT is adding one stop that RFTA expresses have not made in the past. BRT buses will pull into the Brush Creek intercept lot to pick up and drop off Snowmass Village commuters transferring to or from the Village Shuttle system.

Long story short, the effect on commuters will vary depending on where they live and work.

Changing patterns

Dinosaur eggs in Basalt, waiting for a bus to hatch.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Dinosaur eggs in Basalt, waiting for a bus to hatch. Smith / Aspen Journalism

Vivian Zec lives in Basalt and works at the Aspen Meadows. She used to catch her bus in downtown Basalt, but will now walk or ride her bike out to the park-and-ride on Highway 82. She’s unsure whether VelociRFTA will actually save her time, but she recognizes the valleywide benefit of a smarter, faster transit system.

“It probably won’t help me because I’ll have to leave my house earlier, but it does help the downvalley community in a bigger way,” said Zec, who has ridden many buses and trains on the East Coast and in Europe. “I’m a huge fan of RFTA, I really am. We’re really lucky to have such a good transit system.”

Regular RFTA commuters seem prepared for the change, but many valley residents have wondered recently about the new stations, where they came from and who’s paying for them. The original idea for BRT grew out of the 1990s-era notion of valleywide rail service. Though a train eventually proved too expensive and ambitious for a semi-rural valley, transit planners felt BRT was the next best thing.

In 2008, voters across the Roaring Fork region approved a 0.4 percent sales tax to raise local money for BRT and pursue a federal matching grant. In the end, RFTA’s member towns, cities and counties raised $21.2 million to build the BRT system and the Federal Transit Administration contributed $25 million through the so-called Very Small Starts program.

The effort may not feel “Very Small” to Roaring Fork Valley residents, but RFTA will hold the distinction of being the first rural transit agency in the country to build and operate a BRT system.

“Transit is a public amenity that we’re already really good at, and we need to get even better,” Whitsitt said. “This linear valley is perfect for transit.”

By design, BRT is starting up just as the summer high season winds down. This will help RFTA drivers and administrators get the hang of the new system during a relatively low-pressure time period. Ideally, by the time winter tourism places extra pressure on the transit system, RFTA will have worked out the kinks.

Also by that time, Blankenship hopes the BRT station at the Aspen airport will be finished. That station has been complicated by the construction of a pedestrian underpass and should be completed by Thanksgiving, he said.

Another feature yet to come is called “queue bypass,” a system in which a series of midvalley stoplights will recognize BRT buses as they approach, and either lengthen the green light or shorten the red light in order to let them through.

In the same way that stoplights at Buttermilk and the airport give priority to buses and high-occupancy vehicles, these midvalley signals will give buses an advantage. Buses will also be able to use turn lanes and shoulders in certain areas to bypass traffic.

Bottom line, Sept. 3 is the official launch and the day that commuters will remember as the debut of the modern, high-velocity transit service.

But the valley’s new transit system will continue to evolve as the last stations are completed, the various “smart” features fall into place, and RFTA planners fine-tune the interfaces between the BRT mainline and the various “feeder” routes throughout the valley.

“All these things are something of a work in progress,” Blankenship said. “We’ve built a new platform upon which we’re going to start building a whole new system.”

BRT by the Numbers

Passengers can now buy bust tickets at BRT stations.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Passengers can now buy bust tickets at BRT stations.Smith / Aspen Journalism

• 13 stations in nine locations: Glenwood/27th St., Carbondale Park and Ride, El Jebel Park and Ride, Willits, Basalt Park and Ride, Brush Creek Park and Ride, Aspen Airport, Buttermilk, Aspen.

• 13 years of planning, design and construction.

• One-hour ride from Glenwood to Aspen.

• 18 new, low-floor, compressed natural gas buses.

• $46 million capital investment in BRT

• 10-12 minutes between buses during morning and evening rush hours, 15-30 minutes off-peak.

• 3.95 million passengers carried by RFTA in 2012.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborated with the Aspen Daily News on this story. The Daily News published a version of the story on Friday, August 30, 2013.

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