Law reauthorizes possible RFTA tax

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Passengers board a RFTA bus on a snowy Monday at the Glenwood Springs 27th Street park and ride stop.
Post Independent |

The first bill to advance from the Colorado Legislature this year and become law could eventually be used by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to set a tax for upkeep and expansion of the valleywide public bus system.

House Bill 17-1018 extends the time period that regional transportation authorities can ask voters for approval of a property tax for public transit systems. The authorization to levy a property tax was set to sunset in January 2019. The new law extends the sunset until January 2029.

RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said the option of seeking voter approval of a property tax is vital for RFTA because of uncertainty of future federal funding. Federal and state programs funded purchases of many of the buses and much of the infrastructure.

“In order for RFTA to replace these assets in the future, it appears likely that additional local revenues will be required,” Blankenship said.

RFTA is funded by sales tax revenues from its eight member jurisdictions. However, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale are collecting the maximum sales tax allowed for transit — 1 percent. That means the only other funding options available are a 5-mill property tax or 2 percent visitor benefit tax.

RFTA is currently working on a major plan examining its future demands and how to meet them. The Integrated Transportation System Plan will provide the board of directors with a blueprint for the future. Blankenship noted the state demographer is forecasting significant growth in the Roaring Fork Valley for both employment and population. That will have implications for the bus system — likely increasing demand while federal funding dries up.

“The RFTA board will decide whether RFTA should shrink to fit available resources, maintain the status quo or continue growing to meet future demand,” Blankenship said.

RFTA lobbied for passage of HB17-1018 to keep its options open. Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, whose district includes Eagle County, was one of the sponsors of the bill. The bill received bipartisan support in the state House and Senate, then was signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday.

Mitsch Bush noted in a media statement that the bill extends the ability of organizations such as RFTA and the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority in Colorado Springs to seek approval of a property tax from their constituents.

“Those regional transportation authorities provide much-needed transportation options for folks outside the Denver Metro area,” Mitsch Bush said in the statement. “Thanks to the governor for putting these people first, literally.”

RFTA lobbied for approval of the bill. Blankenship and Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, a member of RFTA’s board of directors, testified for approval during committee hearings in Denver in February.

“RFTA needs [the ability to ask for a property tax] in its toolbox to make sure transit keeps pace with growth,” Whitsitt said.

Blankenship said no decision has been made by RFTA to seek a property tax increase.

“Planning for a successful referendum can take several years, and an election should not be undertaken if the economic climate isn’t suitable,” he said. “While it is possible that [the board of directors] may decide to pursue a vote on a mill levy as early as November 2018, it is also possible that the decision to go for a vote could be postponed for several years.

“That is why preserving the option to ask voters to approve a property tax beyond January 2019 was so important for RFTA’s long-term sustainability.”

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