Moving to the Mountain: Aspen’s Dominance in Public Transportation


The United States is not well known for its public transportation. As opposed to Europe, the number of routes offered and the overall efficiency is much worse. This is especially true for rural transportation. For many rural cities around the United States, there are frankly no alternatives to using a car to travel between places. Some may argue that since there are no public transportation services, there is simply not enough need for such services in rural areas. Although that is true, there are many reasons why public transportation can benefit rural communities. Many rural areas are notoriously poor and do not have the number of public services that urban areas do. Without public transportation, residents spend thousands of dollars every year on vehicles, maintenance, and gasoline. Furthermore, older citizens tend to live in rural areas. Over time, it becomes more impractical for them to drive long distances, currently required by the transportation network operating in rural areas.

The major exception to the lack of rural public transportation is the rural service offered in ski towns. In particular, the public transportation services provided in Aspen, Colorado, and the surrounding towns and cities in Pitkin County have proven to be widely successful. Their success is part of the reason why Colorado had by far the highest efficiency among rural public transportation services, boarding slightly under 20 million passengers from areas with a population of less than 50,000 in 2017. The next closest state is Michigan, with a total of 6.7 million passengers boarded. Aspen alone, and its respective Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA), account for 5 million passengers every year alone. This authority allows passengers to travel nearly 70 miles to nearby towns and provides various routes throughout the town of Aspen. It is clear that Colorado is the leader in rural public transportation. This is due to the numerous ski towns and counties providing public transportation, such as that in Aspen.


But why is Aspen’s public transportation so effective and why do they continue to operate as one of the very few public transportation services offered for rural residents? This question can be answered in two parts. First, public transportation is a necessity to move low-wage workers from their residences to the resorts. The average price of a home in Aspen is well over $2 million, making it very impractical for low-wage labor to live within the city. Thus, many workers live far from the resorts. For some, it may take hours to get from their homes to the resort. Moreover, workers at resorts typically do not bring their cars when they are working. Jobs at ski resorts are in remote locations and are seasonal jobs; workers typically do not choose to settle down. Rather, they may work for one or two winters before settling down with a more long-term job elsewhere. Because of this, workers rely heavily on public transportation services to get to and from work. Furthermore, public transportation also reduces traffic on major roads leading to the resorts that can be very congested at the beginning and end of the ski day.

Second, public transportation is also used by skiers and snowboarders themselves to get to the mountain. Many skiers come on vacation and need a way to get to the mountain every day if walking is not an option. Furthermore, sometimes having a car at a ski resort is not as practical as it may seem. Parking lots can be massive and parking passes can be expensive at many resorts, disincentivizing bringing a car to the resort for many skiers. Public transportation services provided by the RFTA in Aspen provide direct transit to the base of the resorts. This makes it much easier for riders to get to the mountain without needing a car.

Skiers waiting for the bus to travel home
Public Domain


Even though these two scenarios explain the demand for rural public transportation, it can still be hard for the RFTA to cover its costs. Because of this, the RFTA requires a government stipend to operate many of its bus services and provide free rides for workers, skiers, and other passengers. Thus, when the RFTA was established in 1984, a 1-cent sales tax was implemented in Aspen to subsidize the agency. Later, in 1986, this was replaced by a city-wide 1-cent tax throughout Pitkin county. This sales tax allows the RFTA to offer many routes for free, making it much easier for riders to board and attracting an increase in overall ridership.

As mentioned earlier, road congestion in Aspen, both around the resort and the nearby roads leading into the town, is a major problem. Although bolstering public transportation can reduce the number of cars on the road, it does not provide that much of an incentive for people to take the bus rather than drive to the resort, as the congestion affects cars and buses equally. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) recognized that this was a problem in 1998 and thus created the Record of Decision on the Entrance to Aspen. Under this decision, the two parties agreed to construct a new road to access the mountain. To encourage people to use public transportation to access the town, the parties recognized two options. The first option was if there was support for the funding of the operation, a light rail system to serve in conjunction with the new project. If the funding was not available for the new project, two bus lanes (one for each side of the road) would be added for buses to bypass potential traffic. Through this, the RFTA was able to reduce their service to Glenwood Springs to 30 minutes.


Although government subsidies by both Aspen and Pitkin Counties were extremely pivotal for the growth of the RFTA, there was a massive jump a decade later for a different reason. In 1990, RFTA signed a 6-year contract with Aspen Ski Co to expand their services and provide a dedicated service to skiers. This, along with a ½-cent tax implemented in Eagle County for transit helped the RFTA increase its ridership from 1.9 million to 3.5 million per year. Since this original contract, the RFTA and Aspen Ski Co have continuously made new contracts after expirations to assure that there is always subsidized public transportation for skiers and workers in Aspen.

These contracts have proven to be very important for both Aspen Ski Co and for RFTA. For Aspen Ski Co, public transportation provides a reliable service for their workers and their skiers in the town. It also allows them to invest less in maintaining parking lots and makes the area around the base of the mountain more friendly for foot traffic. Furthermore, the contract also includes routes that can take skiers and workers from the parking lots to the base of the mountain. Without the contract, Aspen Ski Co would likely have to implement expansive parking lots, including long and treacherous walks for skiers and workers. The contract also ensures that buses cycle every 15 minutes so riders can rely on public transportation to get to the mountain and to get home at the end of the day. The contract includes the 4-mountain connector route. Because Aspen Ski Co operates 4 mountains that are somewhat spaced out, this bus route allows for two things. First, it allows for riders to switch between mountains intra-day as long as their pass allows them to do so (which is a factor for most passes sold nowadays, including the IKON pass which these resorts are a part of). Second, it allows riders living in one village to ski at another mountain, if they so decide, without needing a car at all while visiting Aspen. Aspen Ski Company covers the full cost for this operation along with a “prorated share of capital expenses” according to the RFTAs financial report. Lastly, Aspen Skiing Company maintains a spot on the RFTA Board of Directors per the 1996 Expansion of the RFTA Board of Directors.

For RFTA, the benefits of the contract are widespread. The contract allows them to operate without charging for fares despite fluctuations in demand over the skiing season. This allows them to be profitable regardless of changes in snowfall and other unpredictable changes. It also allows RFTA to allocate its funds effectively throughout the season, controlling for peak skiing times such as holidays, while still operating in non-peak times throughout the season. According to their latest financial report, the fares for their buses account for only 4% of their total revenues. The other 96% consists of subsidies from the government and the contracts they make with third parties to cut costs and increase revenues. Taxes, both sales taxes, and property taxes instituted by the local government account for 65% of their total revenue whereas private contracts account for another 23% with the other revenues coming from other miscellaneous sources. Beyond this contract, there are many other contracts between RFTA and the government that have allowed RFTA to operate so efficiently. One of the most notable contracts is their “price-fixed fuel contract.” This allows them to operate their buses at low or no fare even when prices of diesel gasoline are above $5 a gallon, saving over $700,000 in total potential fuel costs for the RFTA.


While RFTA has flourished in its operations and continues to be successful today, they still have some issues they constantly deal with. As with many employers in skiing towns, RFTA has recently struggled with maintaining labor. Due to the extreme housing costs in Aspen and the surrounding areas, workers have grown angry with their financial situation. In Summer 2021 RFTA workers unionized, advocating for higher pay and incentives for veteran drivers. Around 2 weeks later, RFTA announced that over the next few years, workers would experience a 9% to 11% increase in pay.

Despite these issues, RFTA is confident that it will maintain its role as one of the most successful public transportation networks in the country. As part of its current financial and strategic plan, RFTA plans to build out its network and renovate its services to better fit the community. As outlined in their 2019 strategic plan, RFTA emphasizes that they seek to address many areas such as Safe Customers, Workforce, and General Public; Accessibility and Mobility; Sustainable Workforce; Financial Stability; Satisfied Customers; Environmental Sustainability; and High Performing Organization. In conjunction with their plan, RFTA also instituted a dashboard, tracking their achievements in each of these areas regarding the specific goals set for each area. This type of innovation is sparsely utilized among other public transportation services and is an outlier in rural public transportation.

In conclusion, many factors have led to the success of the RFTA and public transportation in Aspen. Government contracts and subsidies have allowed the RFTA to operate with little to no fares. Private contracts such as that with Aspen Skiing Company have both helped the RFTA financially and Aspen Skiing Company operate much more efficiently in terms of getting skiers and workers to and from the mountain. Finally, their innovation has enabled them to be a leader in the public transportation industry.


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