Upper valley carrying its fair share of RFTA load

by Dan Blankenship

Stan Stevens’ May 24 letter to the editor titled, “Glenwood gets too little for its RFTA tax dollars,” contained several factual errors that should be corrected. Mr. Stevens is correct that Glenwood Springs contributes a 0.4 percent sales and use tax to Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. He is also correct that the upper-valley communities within Pitkin County have levied 1.5 percent in transit sales and use taxes.

What Mr. Stevens, apparently, misunderstands is that 0.72 percent of the Pitkin County transit taxes were dedicated by Pitkin County voters to RFTA when it was created in November 2000. Pitkin County communities retain the remainder of the 1.5 percent transit tax, or 0.78 percent, to fund their own internal transit systems and to pay for upper-valley transportation improvements. This approach is not unlike the city of Glenwood Springs in that, in addition to the 0.4 percent sales tax levied for RFTA, it also levies a 0.2 percent sales tax that funds the Ride Glenwood Springs bus service, and an additional 0.25 percent sales tax that funds local transportation improvements.

Mr. Stevens is also correct that the upper valley receives a higher level of bus services than Glenwood Springs. By his estimate, Glenwood Springs receives approximately 34 percent of the number of regional bus trips that the upper valley receives (44 bus trips per day versus 126 bus trips per day). In his letter, Mr. Stevens stated, “That means one-third of the transit service from Glenwood for 0.4 percent RFTA tax, versus three times the up-valley service for 0.49 percent contribution from Pitkin County.” The facts, however, do not support this statement.

In 2003, RFTA received a total of $6,036,000 in dedicated sales taxes from its seven member jurisdictions. Most of this tax revenue was used to support regional transit services provided primarily in the Highway 82 and Interstate 70 corridors. Of the total amount, $4,183,000, or 69 percent, was derived from the 0.72 percent RFTA sales and use tax collected in Pitkin County. About $1,147,500, or 19 percent, was derived from the 0.4 percent RFTA sales and use tax levied in Glenwood Springs.

Using Mr. Stevens’ approach, it would appear that Glenwood Springs is actually getting a pretty good deal if it is receiving 34 percent of the regional transit services for only 19 percent of the tax dollars required to support them. In truth, the allocation of transit costs and benefits, by jurisdiction, is more complicated than the methodology developed by Mr. Stevens indicates. One thing is clear, though, Mr. Stevens is not correct when he says the contribution from Pitkin County is only 0.49 percent. In fact, the upper valley not only has a significantly higher RFTA sales tax rate than Glenwood Springs (0.72 percent versus 0.4 percent), but it is also contributing 264 percent more tax revenue to RFTA than Glenwood Springs. It should be noted that in addition to $4.183 million in sales taxes dedicated to RFTA in 2003, Pitkin County governments also gave RFTA a grant of $565,000 to cover various operating and capital expenses.

Mr. Stevens also fails to take into consideration, as it relates to RFTA, that Pitkin County has a larger sales tax base than Glenwood Springs. In 2003, each 0.1 percent of sales tax in Pitkin County generated approximately $581,000 for RFTA, whereas in Glenwood Springs each 0.1 percent generated only $287,000. While the rate of taxation is relevant in discussions regarding transit service equity, what the tax rate equates to in terms of actual dollars may be of far greater importance.

If Mr. Stevens were genuinely concerned about the inequities attributable to RFTA sales tax rates and service levels, he would have to look no farther than communities located further down the I-70 corridor. With the exception of New Castle, which contributes $1,500 per year, no community contributes anything for the Grand Hogback transit service. Clearly, that isn’t equitable from the standpoint of other RFTA members who are investing in RFTA transit services. However, eliminating regional transit services to these communities, to address this inequity, would also reduce regional transit service provided to Glenwood Springs. Most likely, Mr. Stevens would not like it if the net impact of eliminating the Grand Hogback service would be to further reduce the benefit Glenwood Springs receives from its 0.4 percent sales tax investment in RFTA.

Mr. Stevens appears to be arguing that if each community pays roughly the same sales tax rate, they should receive roughly the same level of regional transit service, regardless of demand or how many actual dollars their RFTA tax rates generate. This sounds good in theory, but it would be difficult to implement in practice. Ultimately, there are even larger equity issues that should be considered, beyond whether each community is contributing precisely the same sales tax rate or even the same tax dollar amounts to RFTA.

Is it just a coincidence that communities that have larger sales tax bases, such as Aspen and Glenwood Springs, also suffer from very high levels of automobile congestion, and an acute lack of affordable housing? These problems, in turn, contribute greatly to the need and demand for transit services. Is it unreasonable for these communities to shoulder a majority of the financial burden connected with transporting their employees and patrons to and from the bedroom communities where they reside?

Dan Blankenship is the chief executive officer for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

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