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Bus route in doubt?

Post Independent/Kelley Cox
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Peach Valley resident Christine Burke rides the bus each day to her job in Glenwood Springs and can’t imagine doing without it.So it’s hard for her to hear that the future of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s Grand Hogback bus service is uncertain.”To me it would seem like a step backward if we stopped having the service,” she said.Burke is among an ever-growing number of people who rely on the service, which began in 2002. If its future was up to them, it might be secure. But instead it’s up to elected officials and voters, and as a result questions have continued to surround whether the service should be maintained in much of the area it now covers.The service’s future could become a lot clearer in November, when Rifle voters are expected to consider approving a 0.2 percent sales tax the city would use in part to help fund it.”It’s not exactly what RFTA would have hoped for but it’s more than the city of Rifle was inclined to deal with originally,” Mayor Keith Lambert said of the tax proposal. “We’re happy with it as far as it goes and we’re hoping that the voters see likewise.”Under the proposal, the city wouldn’t join RFTA, but would form its own transportation district. It would contribute some of the tax proceeds toward RFTA’s Grand Hogback service, leaving some money available for other transportation purposes.

RFTA-related votes have had mixed results among governmental jurisdictions served by the Grand Hogback route. The service travels between Rifle and Glenwood Springs and gets its name from the prominent ridge running along much of that stretch.In 2004, New Castle voters agreed to a 0.4 percent sales tax and $10 vehicle registration fee to fund RFTA. However, Silt voters turned down the same proposal. And Garfield County residents living outside cities also rejected joining RFTA. Carbondale and Glenwood already are RFTA members.Rifle this year gave RFTA $10,000 from its general funds, twice what it gave last year. But its City Council has put off placing a transportation measure to fund RFTA on the ballot out of concern in the past that it would compete with other tax measures before voters. But it decided this fall that it could wait no longer, even with school and library funding questions going on the ballot.”It got to the point that … you can’t wait forever, you’ve got to do something,” Lambert said.Getting tax approval won’t be enough in itself. The proposal also hinges on the city and RFTA successfully concluding efforts to reach an agreement for funding RFTA under the tax. The city decided to go for its own transportation tax so it would have more control over how the tax’s proceeds are spent.RFTA executive director Dan Blankenship understands the city’s position and sees the tax proposal as a positive first step toward Rifle eventually developing enough trust and comfort with RFTA to become a member.But he added, “We’ve been investing in the (Hogback) service without a whole lot of support for four years now, so I think our intentions are good.”

Blankenship isn’t ready to deliver any ultimatums about the future of the Grand Hogback service if Rifle doesn’t agree to funding it with a tax. That said, RFTA’s board has long been discussing whether it should continue past New Castle absent more significant financial support from the areas served.”I think they’ve been kind of reserving making a formal decision on the matter until they see what shakes out,” Blankenship said.A “no” vote presumably would leave the board questioning whether the Rifle community wants or needs bus service, he said.It also could leave service to Silt in question. Blankenship said Silt’s board of trustees had initially approved putting a 0.2 percent RFTA tax on the ballot this year, based on a misunderstanding by Blankenship that the RFTA board would consider that adequate to make Silt a voting RFTA member. But the RFTA board has since indicated it wants to continue requiring a 0.4 percent tax and a $10 registration fee as minimum requirements for membership.Silt can’t follow Rifle’s example by seeking approval for its own 0.2 percent tax and contracting with RFTA because it’s already reached its state-imposed sales tax cap of 3 percent. That cap wouldn’t apply to a dedicated RFTA tax because RFTA is its own taxing jurisdiction.While there’s no transportation tax on Silt’s ballot this fall, Blankenship said he thinks officials there have been showing good faith toward RFTA. He’s hoping the two parties can reach some resolution on how to proceed in helping fund the Hogback service and keep it going to Silt.If Rifle voters approve a tax, that should secure service to Silt because buses pass through it in going back and forth to Rifle, Blankenship said.As questions about funding continue, so do the increases in Grand Hogback ridership. It’s at 42,280 through August of this year, compared to about 38,000 for the same period last year. Total 2005 ridership was 57,000, up from about 49,349 in 2004.



Blankenship believes factors such as downvalley growth, rising gas prices and concerns about global warming all are contributing to the increase in ridership, which is coming despite the fact that the Grand Hogback offers a fairly limited number of runs per day.Burke said she started riding the bus because of concerns about cars causing pollution, creating traffic problems and consuming nonrenewable resources. “And the economics – it’s saving me a lot of money” compared to driving, she said.Burke works as product manager of Blizzard Internet Marketing. She said that while the public generally sees buses as transportation for students, the elderly and laborers, a lot of professionals and middle-class workers also rely on it.”I would feel bad about our county and our area if we didn’t offer basic services. This service benefits the whole cross section of the community,” she said.She would like to see not just local communities but Garfield County helping keep the Grand Hogback service going, and thinks the county should get severance tax from the natural gas industry to support RFTA.Contact Dennis Webb: 9450-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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