Known for its luscious mountain scenery and upscale ski resorts, Aspen, Colo., is a haven for the rich — and not necessarily famous — to escape or dwell.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) provides commuter bus service from the city to other area locales. Like other transportation agencies nationwide, it faces the challenge of converting motorists into bus riders.
Serving a population below 50,000, RFTA still has annual ridership of close to three million. In order to better accommodate the community, the agency decided change was necessary. Last December, it added four Motor Coach Industries (MCI) D-Series coaches to its 89-vehicle fleet.
The D4500 model coaches are wheelchair accessible, offer a 57-passenger seat capacity and provide 29 inches of legroom. Other comforts include 110-volt power outlets for laptops, LED reading lights and airflow controls. For security, each coach is equipped with interior and exterior surveillance cameras.
“It’s an over-the-road coach with everything an agency could possibly want out of a bus rapid transit vehicle used on longer routes,” said Kenny Osier, RFTA’s maintenance director. “It rates as one of our greatest success stories as far as equipment goes.”
Early skepticism seen
Success wasn’t instant, or even expected. Initially, much skepticism surrounded the project. Set to replace the 40-foot articulated buses used on the Aspen-Glenwood express route, many doubted the longer vehicles would be able to handle the narrow, winding terrain and city congestion along the 45-mile course.
“Everybody was skeptical,” said Osier. “There was concern that maybe this wasn’t the best way to move people up and down the valley. Most of the drivers were concerned about it upfront because it was 45 feet long.”
But with a convincing performance during the demonstration period, many doubters changed their attitudes. Operators took the coaches on test drives along their designated routes and soon learned that driving the vehicle was not much different than an articulated bus, except for minor adjustments to accommodate a different turning radius.
A city council official who once disagreed with the project also learned to like the additions. “He pulled me aside [during a meeting] and said, ‘That’s the kind of bus that makes riding a bus enjoyable,’” said Osier. “Bigger is not better in his book, but he was impressed.”
According to Osier, in spite of the early opposition, RFTA was at its wit’s end concerning its long-distance routes. Different vehicles (transit buses, over-the-road coaches, articulated buses) were implemented over the years but nothing seemed to fit. Either seating capacity wasn’t high enough, requiring additional buses to be purchased, or weather-related trouble hindered
Tougher than the rest
“We had such bad luck with the [articulated buses],” Osier said. “When it got to about 30 degrees, they’d get stuck. We don’t have nearly as many weather-related problems with the MCIs.” Another factor was the magnesium chloride (liquid de-icer) used on city streets, which corroded electrical connections in an articulated bus’ joint.
“When buying new buses, we’ve really pushed that we aren’t asking [manufacturers] to compete against each other,” said Osier. “We were asking them to compete against the personal automobile. If we [offered] plastic seats and mediocre interiors, which would you pick? Aspen is an affluent area and personal vehicles tend to be quite nice.”
Although overall ridership appears flat, what the MCI coaches have done is instill excitement within the community to hop onto a transit vehicle, something Osier thinks will continue and eventually lead to an increase in ridership.
“Passengers have nothing but good things to say about them,” Osier said. “People make it a point to get to a bus stop where they know the MCIs will show up. MCI builds a nice coach, and it’s been a positive [response] all the way through.”