Two local elected officials left meetings with Colorado's Congressional delegation last week feeling optimistic that the Roaring Fork Valley will score a $24 million federal grant to expand its bus system, but they acknowledged that budget battles cloud the issue.
Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman and Aspen City Councilman Steve Skadron met with U.S. Representatives Scott Tipton and Jared Polis as well as U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall in Washington, D.C., Wednesday. They also met with a deputy administrator for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) on Thursday.
"They were all supportive or our program," Newman said.
He said he stressed to the federal legislators and their top aides that the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority's bus rapid transit (BRT) proposal is groundbreaking for a rural area. Once built, it could serve as a model for small but growing areas to deal with transportation challenges, he said.
Newman and Skadron went on the lobbying trip with RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship and RFTA Chief Operating Officer Todd Horsley. Newman and Skadron are on RFTA's board of directors.
RFTA has a plan to purchase extra buses, run more direct routes between major destinations, expand park-and-ride lots and improve bus stations. The idea is to build a bigger, better RFTA that makes the bus even more competitive with travel by personal vehicle. The plan is informally known as RFTA on steroids.
Skadron said Tipton - a Republican from Cortez who represents the 3rd Congressional District, which includes Aspen - questioned some minor aspects of the RFTA's plan. He disagreed with the need for Wi-Fi on buses. RFTA wants to add the service to appeal to commuters who want to work or keep themselves entertained while traveling.
RFTA's grant request has been thoroughly reviewed by the FTA. Funding was included in President Obama's fiscal year 2011 budget at the federal agency's recommendation.
There's just one problem. FTA doesn't have the funds to award because Congress hasn't approved a full budget.
"We're shovel-ready on this. We just don't have a way to pay for [all of] it," Skadron said.
Congress has been passing short-term allocations, usually for two or three weeks, to keep the federal government operating while the Democrats and Republicans wrangle over spending.
"I'm optimistic we'll get the grant if the Democrats and Republicans pass a budget," Skadron said.
Republican House members have vowed to slash spending in the fiscal year 2012 budget. If RFTA doesn't get a grant this year, it's anybody's guess what happens next year, Newman conceded. The "worst-case scenario" is FTA's funding is cut so drastically that RFTA wouldn't receive a grant even though it was previously approved, he said.
RFTA has a "plan B" for funding the expansion plan. It would use sales tax revenues approved by local voters and earmarked for bus rapid transit to fund small chunks of the project as fast as it could. The expansion would take significantly longer under that scenario. (The local funds will be spent on the project either way. They were required as a local match to qualify for the local grant.)
Newman said he left the meetings feeling optimistic that the FTA grant is forthcoming this fiscal year and that RFTA will be able to proceed with the full plan.