U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, D-Colo., put Aspen high on his list of Colorado communities to visit during the current congressional recess. After first visiting Pueblo on Saturday, Colorado’s junior senator flew into Aspen Monday afternoon for an informal campaign stop, according to an aide. Bennet was last in Aspen on July 1 to attend a meeting at Colorado Mountain College.

Bennet, 44, is up for election for the first time in 2010. A former superintendent of Denver public schools, he was appointed to the Senate by Gov. Bill Ritter in January to replace Ken Salazar, who was appointed by President Obama to be Secretary of the Interior.

The senator met Tuesday morning at Aspen City Hall with local elected officials and staff from Aspen, Snowmass Village, Pitkin County, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale to discuss transit and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

“I don’t even want to go back, ever,” Bennet said, joking about the Front Range and praising Aspen’s beauty. “You are the luckiest people in the world.”

But he also got a taste of resort reality.

Bennet said he had to leave downtown Aspen on Monday afternoon for a meeting downvalley and got stuck in rush-hour traffic on Main Street.

“I said ‘My God, now we’re going to have half an hour of traffic coming out,’ but it was actually 15 minutes,” he said.

After the meeting, when asked about his Aspen traffic experience, he said, “It was a lot nicer to sit here in traffic than on the Front Range in traffic, but this was a very legitimate traffic jam by any measure.”

Turning to the issue at hand, which was a review of the RFTA bus system, Bennet said RFTA “could be a model for the rest of the state and the rest of the country as we think about this new energy economy we are trying to build.”

RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship told him about the regional service RFTA provides from Aspen to Rifle and how in 2008 it carried 4.85 million passengers on its fleet of 110 vehicles, of which 13 are now hybrid buses.

Blankenship also updated him on the VelociRFTA bus rapid transit system now in the final planning stages, and the $25 million federal grant the agency is hoping to obtain from the Federal Transit Authority — and then match with local money.

Bennet asked what RFTA would get with its $50 million and Blankenship quickly listed the new buses, new bus priority lanes and signals, new bus stops and ticket systems, real-time bus information systems and other aspects of the new system.

“Transit in general, and RFTA is no exception, needs higher levels of FTA operating assistance,” Blankenship told the senator. “We’ve really been hit hard by the decline in the economy. We’re all being forced, really, to scale back, raise fares, and so forth, at a time when people are hurting economically and when they are looking to more affordable options for their transportation. If we’re successful in garnering these federal dollars, we’ll be more sustainable in the long run, and it will make our local dollars go further.”

The RFTA board is meeting Thursday morning in Carbondale and a fare increase is on the agenda.

After the meeting, Bennet said “there’s a growing recognition in Washington that transit is desperately needed all throughout the country.

“And it is not just urban areas,” he said. “It is rural communities in Colorado these days that I hear most from that are interested in having transit across their regions, to better connect their regions, and undergird their economy.”

But while the awareness of transit is growing in Washington, the money to support it may not be.

“We’re going to be strapped as a government because of the incredible deficits that we are running,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to bring our budgets back into line. On the other hand, to the extent that we can actually get some rational priorities set in Washington, I think transit ought to be at the top of the list because it is an enormous economic boost.”

Sen. Bennet plans to visit 30 Colorado counties over the next month on a “Fighting for Colorado Families Tour.” He’ll  be holding a town hall meeting in Frisco at the community center at 8 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 14, and another meeting in Edwards at CMC at 10:30 later that morning.