Giving RFTA its due |

Giving RFTA its due

Dennis Webb

Local mass transit supporters might want to remember the date: Dec. 2, 2002. It may very well go down as the day the tide irrevocably shifted in favor of support for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority in Garfield County.

County commissioners voted unanimously Monday to contribute $25,000 to RFTA next year.

It’s not a large amount, but it’s a start. It’s a symbolic turn in thinking from a board that not only has failed to support RFTA financially over the years, but at one point even actively stood in the way of increasing service within the county.

Years ago, commissioners went so far as to refuse to let RFTA buses stop in unincorporated parts of the county – a position it later abandoned due to public demand for bus stops.

More recently, the county, and the downvalley communities of New Castle, Silt and Rifle, declined to join other governments that agreed to let their voters decide whether to be part of a new rural transportation authority.

But RFTA, undeterred, pushed forward with plans to extend its service west of Glenwood Springs, all the way to Rifle.

RFTA’s executive director, Dan Blankenship, believes that move, and RFTA’s commitment to sticking with it, won over county commissioners, who he said are supportive of the extended service. They see the benefits it provides to a workforce that includes county employees.

It was a classic chicken-or-egg question. RFTA wanted to provide downvalley service but needed downvalley support. But it’s hard to get the support without having any service to show for it. So it swallowed hard and, bolstered by the creation and funding of the RTA in 2000, started up that service, in hopes that support might follow.

Blankenship says he eventually expects western Garfield County bus service to be a “mainstay of what RFTA” does. It could be a fast-growing service due to the growth expected in that region, and the construction of a new high school right on the bus route between New Castle and Silt.

As this occurs, let’s hope that downvalley communities join the county in giving to the cause. They and the county eventually should give at a level reflective of what their citizens are gaining from it in terms of increased transportation options, reduced traffic, cleaner air and less draining of ever-dwindling global gasoline supplies.

These governments should also give their voters a chance to decide on joining, and financially supporting, the RTA, keeping in mind how they benefit from it.

Even now, county commissioners are quick to qualify their newfound financial backing of RFTA. Commissioner Walt Stowe made a point to observe what goes without saying, that this week’s vote does not obligate future commissioners to provide funds.

If certain governments in the county have been slow to support RFTA, it’s worth remembering that at least one other local community once was the same way. But Glenwood Springs overcame initial reluctance and has since become an active partner with RFTA, working with it to create an excellent in-town transportation program, and supporting the extended service to Rifle as well.

Local financial support for RFTA is not only warranted but necessary. Blankenship notes that Colorado is one of the few states without dedicated statewide funding for mass transportation. That changed last year when such funding was included in a transportation bill, but the revenues won’t start coming in until 2006.

Anything RFTA continues to do before then hinges on what funding local governments can provide. And the lagging local economy has taken a toll on the agency’s tax revenues.

Yet RFTA remains one of the state’s biggest and most successful mass transit agencies, and studies show most households in the valley have taken advantage of its services at one time or another, Blankenship said.

There is plenty of reason for local governments to give to RFTA, and Garfield County’s decision to finally do so is to be applauded.

– Dennis Webb, News Editor

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