The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will switch to a higher level of bus service next Sunday to satisfy the growing demand valleywide and also to Rifle, CEO Dan Blankenship said during a recent interview.
Depending on the pace at which custom sneeze guards can be installed on the buses and over-the-road coaches, RFTA may see the reinstitution of fare service by August, though passengers will have fair warning as to when rides will no longer be free, he said.
The city of Aspen buses — which are always free, as is service to Snowmass Village — are among the 100 buses systemwide that will get the new sneeze curtains. That will allow for the eventual restart of the Crosstown Shuttle and the dial-a-ride portion of the Mountain Valley route.
“Our goal is to get them installed on all of the vehicles. Not only do we protect our operators but then we can start to reinstitute fare collection,” Blankenship said.
Early in the pandemic, fare collection was curtailed on all paid RFTA routes to provide safeguards for both drivers and passengers. Airborne droplets are a main cause of the spread of COVID-19 and the new shields are another safeguard for drivers on the front line.
Since the local COVID-19 outbreak in March, RFTA has responded by requiring face coverings for all passengers, having hand sanitizer available and implementing strict social distancing guidelines, seen especially in the marking off of seats to keep a maximum of 15 riders per bus.
“We’ve been seeing that ridership growing” over the past month, Blankenship said. While backup buses are ready to pick up some of the overflow, real-time passenger data show there are still times when “some people have been left behind” because of bus capacity limits, Blankenship said. That’s despite having a supervisor dedicated to monitoring software on passengers.
According to ridership data provided to the RFTA board during its June 11 meeting, between May 6 and June 3, ridership increased 113% on Bus Rapid Transit routes and 100% systemwide.
Local buses, those with more frequent stops, will increase and the Hogback route between Glenwood Springs and Rifle will see three more trips per day starting June 29.
Blankenship shared that the Hogback was most challenging in terms of accommodating demand to pandemic-induced bus capacity limits, as those passengers who are left behind could potentially wait an hour for another bus — only to find it to be full, too.
Under RFTA’s phase 5 of service starting next Sunday, June 28, the BRT line will see the largest increase in frequency. Now, there are 54 BRT trips per day, 27 in each direction on the Highway 82 corridor. That service will almost double on June 28 with 53 trips in each direction throughout the day.
“It is anticipated that businesses will begin opening up to a greater extent in the summer months and more workers will need to use public transit,” the memo noted.
Data “indicates that RFTA has done a good job of maintaining passenger loads at the 9 – 15 passengers’ maximum,” it continued.
Out of 3,768 total trips between May 10 and June 4, 425 buses, or 11 percent, needed backups so as to not exceed the 15 passenger maximum.
“There was one trip that had 20 passengers at one time until a backup bus could be deployed. In addition there were 6 times involving 23 total passengers who were left waiting at bus stops because the 15-passenger limit had been reached,” the RFTA board’s memo noted.
RFTA bus service hours in Aspen also will increase as of Sunday, expanding to 7 a.m. to midnight from its current 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.
RFTA’s board of directors, representing communities throughout its wide-ranging, multi-jurisdiction, worked closely with the bus agency on health and safety expectations during several emergency meetings this spring.
The local bus union has been involved in the design of the sneeze curtain. Transit agencies nationwide have been sharing ideas and patterns for this layer of driver protection, according to RFTA.
All models allow the sneeze screen to be pulled back after the passengers have moved past the driver. This will allow the driver to see the right rear-view mirror.
“When the driver is ready to drive, they pull back the curtain to have an unobstructed view of the rear view mirror and still allow a minimum of six feet of space,” Blankenship said.
He laughed as he rattled off the list of different bus models that would each need their own custom sneeze curtain: natural gas and diesel, over-the road buses from 2004 up to 2019. There are three or four models of low flow buses, each of which needs its own pattern.
“Each driver compartment is a little different,” he said.
“We have contracted with people who do professional seamstress work” to do the sewing, Blankenship added.