Voters consider giving RFTA a lift
Silt resident Jeff LaValla stood at the town’s RFTA stop on an overcast morning last week and waited for the bus that would take him to his job at Wal-Mart in Glenwood Springs.LaValla would be a perfect candidate to cast a vote to help boost funding for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, but said he hasn’t registered to vote since his recent move to Silt.”I’d be up for voting for anything that would improve the service,” LaValla said.Stan Stevens of Glenwood Springs is an occasional RFTA rider himself. But the retiree is vehemently opposed to the proposal to increase the tax in some downvalley communities and get more to join RFTA.Stevens believes Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County pay far too little for a bus service that he said exists primarily to import workers from downvalley and to get people around upvalley.”We are being asked to pay for that service for them,” Stevens said.RFTA has heard the concern before. In fact, the city of Glenwood Springs, now a member of RFTA, once resisted joining out of discomfort with the idea of paying money to make it easier for its own residents to work upvalley. That would make it even harder for local businesses to compete for workers with higher-paying resort-area employers, some opponents said.But eventually Glenwood Springs came to support RFTA as a means of reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, and helping people get around downvalley as well – including to downvalley jobs. RFTA supporters say half of Glenwood’s workers commute into the city to go to work, and half of RFTA’s commuter bus trips begin and end between Rifle and Basalt.LaValla stands as an example of that. He said he owns a car, but can’t afford to fix it, and is put off by high gas prices as well, so he rides the bus instead.”I’m glad we have it,” he said.But the so-called Hogback Bus, which extended RFTA’s reach to New Castle, Silt and Rifle about two and a half years ago, runs too infrequently for LaValla’s liking. He said he often works until 8 p.m. – too late to catch the bus home – and has to get a ride with another worker or hitchhike instead.Even with the service limitations of the Hogback Bus, RFTA supporters point to it as a reason to support more bus funding. Ridership is nearing 50,000 per year. Yet none of the communities served by the Hogback currently provides a dedicated tax source to RFTA.That could change if voters in New Castle and Silt decide to join RFTA and impose a 0.4 percent sales and use tax this fall. Rifle’s City Council also has expressed interest in putting the RFTA issue to a public vote, but chose not to place the measure on this fall’s ballot out of fear of harming other ballot measures, such as a Garfield County Re-2 School District mill levy override.Voters in unincorporated Garfield County will get to decide on RFTA this fall, after years of RFTA supporters lobbying county commissioners to allow the vote. However, the commissioners’ vote to placerfta: see page A2rfta: from page A1 the measure on the ballot was 2-1. Dissenting commissioner John Martin has numerous reservations about the county joining RFTA, one of the biggest being what liability the county might take on in becoming a part of an organization that is financially strapped.Meanwhile, while commissioner Larry McCown agreed to let the matter go to a vote, he personally opposes joining RFTA and plans to vote against the county proposal.That leaves Trési Houpt as the only one of the three commissioners to support the county joining RFTA.She said that if the county becomes a RFTA member there would no financial obligation to pull money of the county’s general fund to finance RFTA.”It would be funded out of sales and use tax, period,” she said.Houpt said this election serves as a critical juncture for determining how big RFTA should be, and the county should play a role in the organization’s future.”Without sitting at the table we have absolutely no opportunity to vote on the direction of RFTA,” she said.But Stevens doesn’t believe the RFTA tax will be worth the cost for people in rural Garfield County.”They don’t go running up to Aspen, and if they want to go to Glenwood they’ll drive in their pickups,” he said.He said Garfield County and the communities within it would be better off running a separate bus service instead of paying for one that he believes is tilted toward up-valley.Stevens said RFTA’s own projections for this year show the operating expenses of its down-valley services to Glenwood Springs and on to Rifle to be $7 million, and the tax and fare income related to those services to be $9 million. Yet RFTA has a shortfall, Stevens said, because of various unfunded bus services provided in the Aspen-Snowmass Village area, including free winter service.But RFTA general manager Dan Blankenship said that in figuring the costs of regional transit, Stevens fails to take into account trail costs, regional capital costs for such expenses as park-and-ride lots and bus purchases, and debt service on regional facilities such as the bus barn in Glenwood.Those costs are actually $14.1 million, with associated income of $13.38 million, he said. RFTA blames a slowing economy and a softening of its sales tax base for the revenue gap.Blankenship said RFTA contracts with up-valley communities for specialized services, just as it contracts with Glenwood Springs for its in-town bus service. The services aren’t unfunded, he said.”If Aspen is getting a free ride, then Glenwood Springs is getting a free ride too,” Blankenship said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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