Drunken assaults on Aspen bus drivers increasing
October 30, 2017
To be a late-night RFTA bus driver these days is, more and more frequently, to be a target.
"I drive the drunk run," Roaring Fork Transportation Authority driver David Potts said of his route from Aspen to Glenwood Springs on Friday and Saturday nights. "A couple weeks ago, the whole bus was high on acid. They were talking about it openly."
At a stop in Basalt during that run, one of the passengers — who was at least under the influence of alcohol — menaced him physically and spit on him when the driver tried to kick the man off the bus for belligerent behavior.
"I'm getting more nervous," Potts said before beginning another run to Glenwood Springs early Thursday evening from Rubey Park Transit Center.
Asked if he thought the authority provided enough security for drivers, he said, "I don't think so."
Does he feel safe on the job? "Not all the time."
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Alcohol- and drug-fueled assaults on RFTA drivers — physical and verbal — have occurred more often in the past year and security measures by the transit agency are not curbing the problem, said Ed Cortez, who is president of the local chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
"We've always had drunk, aggressive people," said Cortez, who's been driving for five years. "But they're becoming more and more aggressive, and at some point someone's going to get hurt."
Roaring Fork Transportation Authority CEO Dan Blankenship agreed that disturbances on buses are increasing, but said the valley-wide agency has beefed up security on buses and at Rubey Park in recent years in response. The agency has nearly doubled its budget for security since 2015.
Blankenship said it's simply not possible to police every bus or guard against every possible situation that might occur aboard a bus.
"We're concerned about it," Blankenship said. "That's why we've increased the amount of security presence that we have. But I'm not sure we have the solution to every situation."
Alcohol appears to be the main culprit behind the rise in the number of not only assaults on drivers, but passenger-on-passenger incidents, as well, according to nearly everyone interviewed for this story. And since most alcohol is consumed at night, the late-night drivers receive the brunt of passengers' drunken attitude.
Those late-night drivers include Potts.
He began driving for RFTA three years ago, piloting the late-night route to Snowmass Village in the winter. The final bus of the night on that run can be particularly loony, he said.
"The Snowmass kids would always say, 'Do you know who my father is? He's a lawyer,’" Potts said with a laugh.
Two years ago he took over the late-night route to Glenwood on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Potts said he has a knack for it.
"Doing the late-night run — it's my forte," he said.
He has developed strategies for dealing with rude, drunk passengers, including warning them that if they cannot control themselves, he will call the police and they will do the controlling.
"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," Potts said, adding that police up and down the valley are usually very responsive to problem passengers.
But the drunk problem is growing, and people drink on the bus every day, he said.
Once or twice every of couple weeks, a passenger becomes belligerent and calls Potts — who is a large man — offensive names, he said.
Someone vomits or urinates inside the bus once a week, Potts said, and it can be amusing at first to fellow drunken passengers until the liquid begins to travel throughout the bus. Riders will turn on the offender and fights can breakout.
Another big problem is minors drinking on the bus, he said.
"They're taking a fifth (of liquor) and just passing it around the back seat," Potts said. "People drink on the bus more than they drink at the bar."
Still, in three years Potts said he'd never before experienced an attack like the one on the bus full of acid-trippers a month.
The man in his mid-20s who assaulted Potts in Basalt first caught his attention in the already noisy bus because the man's headphones were turned up so loud Potts could clearly hear the music.
"I said, 'You need to turn the headphones down,’" he said. "He was drunk. He said, 'You can't hear me. You're an a–hole.'
"I said, 'If you don't, I'm gonna throw you off the bus.' He said, 'F— you. You can't tell me nothing.’"
When they got to Basalt, Potts told the man he had to get off. The man then stepped up to Potts, who was sitting in the driver's seat, and pressed his chest against Potts' arm, pinning him in place. The man cursed at him again, then spit on the side of his face, Potts said.
A security guard was on the bus when the incident occurred, Potts said, and took the man off and waited for Basalt police to arrive.
Three other drivers have been assaulted in the past year, Cortez said.
One was punched in the stomach about a year ago. During the summer, a passenger jumped on a female driver and began kissing and groping her, Cortez said.
About a month ago, a drunk, would-be passenger punched and kicked a male driver after being told to get off a bus, according to an Aspen police report.
In that incident, a 53-year-old RFTA driver reported that Jose Ortega-Castillo, 33, boarded his bus, which was parked near Wagner Park, about 11:45 a.m., the report states. The driver told him the bus was not in service and he that needed to get off. Ortega-Castillo then began cursing at the driver, who told him that because of his drunken belligerence, he would not be able to ride the bus when it went back into service, according to the report.
Both men apparently got off the bus at that point.
"When (the driver) began walking away, Ortega-Castillo punched (the driver) in the left side of the head," the report states. "(The driver) slipped and fell to the ground, and Ortega-Castillo began kicking (the driver) in the side of the body."
Aspen police officers located Ortega-Castillo a few blocks away and arrested him. His breath-alcohol content was 0.29 — more than three times the legal driving limit — when he was later tested at the Pitkin County Jail, according to the police report.
Blankenship is aware of all four incidents and is concerned.
"In recent years, we've seen an increasing number of disturbances on buses," he said.
That's the main reason why RFTA budgeted $80,000 in 2016 and 2017 for both security at Rubey Park and to provide security guards on certain buses, Blankenship said. That number is up from $50,000 spent on security in 2015, and includes $40,000 from the city of Aspen specifically for Rubey Park security, he said.
The money provides increased security at Rubey Park seven days a week during the peak season, Blankenship said.
Additionally, a private security service places two security guards on buses Friday and Saturday nights between 8 p.m. and 2:15 a.m., as well as one other randomly chosen night of the week, said John Hocker, RFTA's co-director of operations. Security guards are provided for special events, as well.
The exact buses the guards ride are at the discretion of security service, Hocker said. Sometimes guards ride all the way to Snowmass Village, Carbondale or Glenwood Springs. Sometimes they just ride to the Intercept Lot at Brush Creek Road, then catch the next bus back to Aspen and do it again.
"They play it by ear," Hocker said.
All buses are equipped with video and audio recorders, he said.
Blankenship said he believes the current security setup is working.
"It's not gotten to the point where we felt like we need a security presence on every bus," he said. "I just don't know how we defend against every situation."
For Potts and Cortez, the main problem is RFTA's policy allowing alcohol on buses. Passengers are not allowed to board with an open container of alcohol, but are free to open alcohol containers once aboard.
The policy is in place because RFTA doesn't want drivers to become the booze police, Blankenship said, which would make their jobs more dangerous. "A lot has to do with people drinking a lot, getting on the bus and continuing to party," he said. "It's allowed because we don't know how to prevent it."
Potts said allowing alcohol on board the buses is the one thing he'd like to see changed.
Cortez has been practically begging for it. Six months ago, Cortez said he spoke to the RFTA board about the problem of alcohol on buses and its threat to driver safety.
"I received a lukewarm response from the board," he said. "My impression was the board wasn't interested in it."
Blankenship said he thinks the only way to prevent alcohol consumption on buses is to forbid eating or drinking anything while aboard.
Cortez suggested another solution.
"Increase security," he said. "That's one way to do it."
If not, Cortez said, find another solution.
"Something has to be done," he said. "It's a dangerous period to be a (RFTA) driver."
RFTA board member George Newman — who also is chairman of the Pitkin County board of commissioners — agreed that something needs to be done about alcohol on RFTA buses. He is in favor of increasing RFTA's security budget to get a handle on the issue.
"We've got to address the problem two-fold," Newman said. "(First) no open containers of alcohol on the bus at all. And (second), some security on late-night buses so drivers don't have to deal (with policing alcohol).
"I think that's the direction we're going in."
Newman said he's been pushing for the no-alcohol policy and believes it would go a long way toward alleviating the belligerence problem.
"Safety is a top priority for the RFTA board — not only for drivers but for passengers, too," he said. "Those incidents (assaults on drivers) are unacceptable to me, and I believe are unacceptable to the rest of the board.
"We need a stronger policy."