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Urbal Growth Through Rapid Transit

Jacque Whitsitt has served on the Board of Directors of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) for nearly 15 years, including service as Vice Chair of the Board, and is currently the Mayor of Basalt, Colorado. Success at the polls, during the onset of the global economic downturn, enabled RFTA to garner Federal Transit Administration Very Small Starts grant support for its VelociRFTA Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, the nation’s first rural BRT system, which is slated to become operational in September 2013. VelociRFTA will greatly improve the quality and convenience of transit services available to Roaring Fork Valley’s residents and visitors for decades to come.

Jacque Whitsitt is being honored as a Champion of Change for her time and effort developing innovative ways to help grow and expand the transportation industry.  

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) is extremely honored to be chosen as a White House Transportation Innovators Champion of Change. Currently, RFTA is constructing VelociRFTA, the first rural Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in the United States. The VelociRFTA BRT fleet will operate on compressed natural gas (CNG), an affordable, abundant, and domestically produced fuel that will help make RFTA a more energy-independent and sustainable transit organization. While other BRT systems operate in urban areas, which typically span 5-10 miles, VelociRFTA BRT will connect five towns from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, Colorado, along a 42-mile stretch of Colorado State Highway 82 (SH82). SH82 is one of the most congested rural highways in Colorado, and it serves as a critical travel artery for thousands of workers in our area who serve the resort communities of Aspen, Snowmass Village, and Glenwood Springs.

RFTA owns the 34-mile Rio Grande rail corridor, and the feasibility of commuter rail service was studied in 1998-1999. However, the estimated $370 million capital cost was unaffordable given the population density of the region. Our mountain resort communities swell with visitors during the peak winter and summer seasons and are plagued by auto congestion and the lack of parking. The majority of the resort employees live in bedroom communities, where housing is more affordable, and must commute many miles each day. The economic and employment activity created by these resort engines leads to unacceptable highway congestion conditions that are neither urban nor rural in nature, but which might best be described as “Urbal.” Due to its estimated $46.2 million price tag, BRT was selected as the most affordable transit alternative to address the region’s current and forecasted mobility and highway congestion challenges.

2008 was a record snow year and the price of gasoline soared above $4 per gallon. Hazardous commuting conditions during the winter and record gas prices drove many new riders onto RFTA’s commuter buses, which had standing room only for long distances, over major portions of each day. System-wide ridership peaked at 4.85 million, and RFTA essentially reached capacity. Many new transit users realized that future spikes in fuel prices were inevitable so, even though the recession was beginning, residents throughout the region approved a tax increase and bonding authority to enable RFTA to improve the quality, convenience, and capability of its transit system. RFTA needed to develop a more modern and convenient transit alternative for its many residents and visitors. BRT, combining many of the reliability features of rail, was determined to be the most cost-effective solution, even though it had never been tried in a rural area. Now, with the assistance of a Federal Transit Administration Very Small Starts grant, VelociRFTA, slated for operation in September 2013, is becoming a reality!

The benefits of this project are numerous. VelociRFTA has generated at least 200 jobs, locally, throughout Colorado, and around the nation, and is expected to generate more before its completion in the fall of 2013. VelociRFTA will significantly reduce travel times of many workers in our valley, while providing distinctive and attractive BRT stations in each community. On one end of the Roaring Fork Valley lie Aspen and Snowmass Village, where many affluent people live and vacation, and where housing prices are some of the highest in the United States. VelociRFTA is being designed to be a convenient commuting option for the many thousands of workers who live down valley in the communities of Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs. Even though RFTA serves a rural area, it is not uncommon for people to commute one to two hours to work. However, the linear and nature of the SH82 corridor, and the compact nature of the Roaring Fork Valley, make it an ideal market for commuter services. The bedroom communities are situated close to SH82, and approximately 60% of existing RFTA users will easily be able to walk or bike to BRT stations. The down side of the current RFTA transit system, the second largest transit system in Colorado, and the largest rural transit system in the U.S., is that its bus travel times are not very convenient. A local bus trip from Glenwood Springs to Aspen can take an hour and a half or more. With VelociRFTA, commuters will be able to make the same trip in about one hour. Using Bus/HOV lanes, exclusive bus lanes, queue bypass lanes, signal priority, and a spectacular array of Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) technology, VelociRFTA will make traveling by bus competitive with the car, and provide an attractive and convenient alternative for “choice” riders.

To be successful at reducing automobile congestion over the long term, RFTA must attract riders who have cars, but choose to use transit for other reasons, such saving money and the environment. However, cost savings and environmental concerns, alone, will not attract higher numbers of “choice” users, unless transit services are convenient. Compared to RFTA’s current commuter services, VelociRFTA will feature very high-frequency service. In RFTA’s experience, frequency trumps expense when it comes to the decisions people make about their commuting mode of choice. VelociRFTA will offer its riders urban-like transit convenience in a rural area. RFTA also anticipates that VelociRFTA will help guide future land use decisions, so that more housing and businesses will be developed within convenient walking and biking distance from BRT stations. By increasing transit use, VelociRFTA will help to stimulate the local economy. Money saved by residents on transportation costs can be spent on housing, goods, and services. If people walk and ride their bikes to/from the BRT stations, it will not only help to conserve energy and reduce auto congestion and harmful emissions, it will also help to promote the health and fitness of VelociRFTA’s many passengers. Increased transit use will help to make our region more energy independent and livable, and protect the natural resources which attract thousands of visitors to our area each year.

While VelociRFTA will have many of the same features as rail, it will be much less expensive to construct and operate, and it will have flexibility that rail does not. BRT services can be ramped up and down, almost in real time, with schedule changes communicated instantly to users. The nimbleness and affordability of BRT make it a great fit for other resort and suburban areas. We are hopeful that VelociRFTA will become a model for other communities, similar to ours, which lack metropolitan density, but want urban-like speed, convenience, and efficiency, at an affordable price, in order to address their transit and mobility needs.

Jacque Whitsitt is Mayor of Basalt, Colorado.