Garfield County commissioners could seek voter approval for west-end transit authority
New entity would fund Grand Hogback and Parachute buses, and senior Traveler aside from county’s general funds
West Garfield County voters may be asked to decide this November whether to form a regional transit authority, similar to the one that serves the Roaring Fork Valley and operates the existing Grand Hogback bus route.
County commissioners have made it known of late that current county funds used to subsidize the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s (RFTA) Hogback service, the new Parachute Area Transit System (PATS) and the Traveler service for area senior citizens is drying up.
“Because of the downturn in oil and gas … we find ourselves in a situation where we can no longer continue to fund transportation out of our general fund, because we just do not have the revenues coming in to do it,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said during a recent Board of County Commissioners work session to discuss transit system funding options.
This year, the commissioners already reduced funding to support RFTA’s Grand Hogback route between West Glenwood and Rifle from $750,000 to $500,000.
The commissioners also recently made good on their $300,000 commitment to support PATS, which provides bus service in and around Parachute/Battlement Mesa and to and from Rifle.
The third big piece of the county’s support for public transportation — $400,000 — goes to the Traveler program, which provides shuttle services for seniors and disabled residents to get to and from doctors appointments, shopping and other needs.
Use of all three services is high.
PATS, in just its first year of operation, has seen a monthly growth in ridership of late, from 183 in December to 369 in February, according to a recent report by Parachute town officials to the county commissioners.
The town puts in $86,000 to support the program, plus fares of $4 to travel from Battlement Mesa to various stops in Rifle, and either $1 or $2 for stops in the Battlement and Parachute vicinity.
The Hogback route, which connects to the Glenwood-to-Aspen bus system, sees about 100,000 rides per year.
As with any public transit system, though, user fares alone are not nearly enough to support the operation and maintenance costs.
“It’s being used,” Jankovsky said, speaking to the demand for transportation services. “Instead of just saying, we can’t do it and dropping them, I’d like to give voters a chance to say, ‘yes, we’ll fund it,’ or, ‘no, we don’t want to.’”
A new western Garfield County transportation authority would require the county to partner with the city of Rifle and the towns of Silt and Parachute to put it on the ballot for formation and a dedicated sales tax to fund it.
The town of New Castle is already part of RFTA’s tax-funding structure, along with Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and other municipalities in Pitkin County.
RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship recalled that Silt voters were asked on two different occasions in the 2000s to join RFTA, which failed, and Rifle voters about that same time were asked about a dedicated sales tax to fund the Hogback route. It, too, failed, but by a narrow margin, Blankenship said.
Part of the problem was that there was no champion for the cause, and no organized campaign. That would be crucial, based on RFTA’s experience with similar tax proposals in recent years, he said.
“Our board came to the conclusion that perhaps (expansion of RFTA westward) wasn’t the best or only solution to address transportation financing in the western part of (Garfield) county,” Blankenship said. “There are some differences of opinion in terms of the perception about the need for transit services.”
For that reason, it may make sense for western Garfield County to go it alone, he said.
“There is a recognition that traffic is increasing in these communities, and it behooves them to look down the road toward improving mass transportation,” Blankenship said.
A west Garfield County transportation authority would look similar to RFTA, with a coalition of local partner governments making up its board membership, in this case the county and the three municipalities, Garfield County assistant attorney Jan Shute said in a March 2 presentation to the commissioners.
Some sort of taxing structure, most likely a sales tax in this case, would also have to be decided by voters. That amount could be different in each jurisdiction, due to caps on local sales tax rates, she said.
County Commissioner Mike Samson, who represents the western part of the county, said the municipalities need to be on board for it to work.
Still, “I know there will be people in Rifle who will rise up against this, for whatever reason,” he acknowledged. “This at least gives people the chance to come together and decide.”
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