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Rural Colo. BRT named ‘Champion of Change’

Posted on July 30, 2012

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) will be acknowledged as a White House Champion of Change for Transportation Innovation. RFTA is one of 14 organizations in the U.S. chosen as a Champion of Change for Transportation Innovation.

Representing RFTA in this event will be Jacque Whitsitt, vice-chair of RFTA’s board of directors. Whitsitt led the campaign, which resulted in a local vote to increase sales tax to assist RFTA. These taxes, combined with a Very Small Starts grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), are what enabled RFTA to build the VelociRFTA bus rapid transit system (BRT). It is the creation of this first rural BRT system that resulted in RFTA’s White House honor.

RFTA implemented various transit innovations: use of biofuels at high altitudes, the Bike Express bus, rural bike loading on buses, to name a few, but the VelociRFTA BRT system is the first innovation to be honored nationally. When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood came out to visit the agency’s Carbondale VelociRFTA site under construction he said, “You’re a model for cooperation. You’re a model for putting your friends and neighbors to work. You’re a model for implementing the first rural BRT project in the country. So I came here to say congratulations to all of you.”

VelociRFTA will run entirely on compressed natural gas (CNG) allowing the agency to be less reliant on foreign oil and keep transit prices down. While other BRT systems reside in urban areas and typically span seven to 10 miles, the route will unite five towns along 42 miles of Highway 82. This is a critical travel artery for many commuting workers in the area.

While area citizens initially wanted light rail, the costs were very high, especially with the length of the service area, and the lack of urban density didn’t provide the necessary funding opportunities. BRT rose to the top as the only alternative to fixing RFTA’s rising ridership issues. In 2008, the price of gas reached record highs. The cost of travel was so much for commuters that the bus system became overwhelmed. The agency had standing room only on routes that were almost two hours long. Ridership peaked at 4.9 million and the agency reached capacity.

Even though the recession was hitting, local communities voted for a tax increase to help address this need. RFTA was determined to help the community with its lengthy commutes to work and do it as efficiently and smartly as possible. BRT was the only logical and practical solution, even though it had never been done in a rural area. With the aid of a Very Small Starts grant from the FTA, VelociRFTA was born.

VelociRFTA has generated at least 250 jobs in Colorado and will generate many more before its completion in fall of 2013. The project will significantly reduce the travel time of many workers in the valley. With the VelociRFTA, the commute from Aspen to Glenwood Springs will take less than one hour. This will make VelociRFTA truly competitive with the car. The new BRT will offer a frequency of every 10 to 15 minutes during peak times of the day, giving community riders urban convenience in a rural area.  

While VelociRFTA serves the same purpose as light rail, it is much less expensive and has flexibility that rail does not. This nimbleness and affordability make it a great fit for rural communities. RFTA hopes that its execution of a rural BRT system will be a model for other communities lacking metropolitan density, but needing urban-like speed and frequency to address their community’s transit demands.

For more information about the White House Champions of Change awards go to www.whitehouse.gov/champions.

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