Rep. Scott Tipton is withholding support for a $25 million federal grant to expand the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority's (RFTA) service because he wants at least $15,000 trimmed from the project, his office said Tuesday.
Tipton declined to sign a letter last week that was sent by part of the Colorado congressional delegation to the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA) urging the agency to release the grant. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet along with Rep. Jared Polis, all Democrats, signed the letter. Tipton, a Republican, declined because he had two primary problems with the letter, said his spokesman, Josh Green.
One problem is the inclusion of a wireless Internet connection that RFTA is proposing on its new buses, Green said.
"The other problem was [the letter] called for a full appropriation of federal funds," he said. The wording of the letter was too "rigid" and didn't reserve the right to review the project and make possible changes to cut expenses, in Tipton's view.
"Congressman Tipton is very supportive of making sure there is access to public transportation," Green said. However, in these tough economic times there were "extra things we just can't get behind completely," he said.
Tipton is part of the freshmen class of Republicans who swept into office in November on promises of fiscal restraint. He defeated incumbent Democrat John Salazar to represent Colorado's 3rd Congressional District. The broad district includes most of the Roaring Fork Valley and western Garfield County, which RFTA serves. The Eagle County portion of the valley is represented by Polis.
Eliminating Wi-Fi wouldn't save much from RFTA's expansion plan. It will cost an estimated $15,000 to equip 18 new buses in RFTA's bus rapid transit plan with Wi-Fi, said the bus agency CEO Dan Blankenship. The federal share is paying for 54 percent of the expansion, which would come out to $9,000 for the Wi-Fi. "RFTA is paying the rest," Blankenship said.
Green said the exact dollar savings isn't Tipton's concern. Rather, it's the need to look for savings at every opportunity at a time when the federal deficit is swelling.
"We need to look for any penny saved," Green said. "It's making sure we're spending our federal dollars wisely and as efficiently as possible."
Blankenship said he was aware from contact with Tipton's staff that the congressman had philosophical concerns about spending and that the Wi-Fi service was indicative of that concern. Blankenship said he interpreted Tipton's message as, "Everybody needs to make some cuts and do some belt-tightening."
While Blankenship chose his words carefully, RFTA board of directors chairman Michael Owsley, a Pitkin County commissioner, was critical of Tipton's lack of support for the grant. "This is where ideology and reality collide," Owsley said.
RFTA worked diligently for years with the Federal Transportation Authority to pare down its grant application to a "minimum" necessary and still retain a worthwhile project, he said. Owsley labeled it "a bare bones approach."
Wi-Fi on the buses is viewed by RFTA as an important tool to lure drivers out of personal vehicles and into buses for the commute to and from Aspen. Commuters will be able to get a jump on email and tap into projects before arriving at work or they can entertain themselves using an Internet connection. To portray it as an extravagance is out of touch with modern necessities, Owsley said.
"Wi-Fi has sort of become the air we breath," he said. "People expect it these days."
Owsley later added: "It's a different world and maybe Scott doesn't have a vision of this new world."
RFTA officials remain confident they will receive the $25 million federal grant, though nothing has been signed. Blankenship said the FTA director himself made a reference to the grant in a recent speech in Pueblo, Colo., that was attended by a RFTA executive.
The federal agency was less definitive when contacted by The Aspen Times Tuesday regarding the status of RFTA's grant. "FTA is currently evaluating projects within its New Starts capital investments program pipeline and will be making decisions on the final funding allocations soon," said a statement by Brian Farber, associate administrator for FTA's Office of Communications and Congressional Affairs. The office was uncertain about the timing of "soon."
Tipton intended to get the FTA's attention by not signing the letter, Green said. The goal is to have the FTA staff "follow-up" with Tipton's staff so that adjustments can be made in the size of the grant and flexibility in its release, according to Green.
RFTA's planning is complete and the project is "shovel ready." It's awaiting the grant to make land purchases for new park-and-ride lots and construction of bus stops.
Owsley said he doesn't know enough about the "ins and outs" of Washington, D.C., to know if the grant is in danger of getting held up because of Tipton's concerns. However, he bristled at the congressman's nitpicking over a "tiny, tiny" expenditure such as Wi-Fi capability on buses.
"That's a viewpoint that's sort of blunt, unsophisticated and naive," Owsley said.