Grant delay threatens to stall RFTA expansion
June 10, 2011
CARBONDALE – The valley’s bus operator is spinning its wheels waiting for a $25 million grant to be awarded for expansion of its system.
Roaring Fork Transportation Authority officials remain confident they will receive the funds from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), but they fear the summer construction season could be largely wasted if they don’t score the funds soon.
“We anticipate we’re going to get word about our grant any day,” RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship told the organization’s board of directors at a meeting Thursday in Carbondale. When his comment drew a few chuckles, Blankenship added, “I realize we’ve been saying that for about six months.”
RFTA’s grant was recommended for approval by the FTA in the fiscal year 2011 budget and it was included in President Obama’s proposed budget. However, Congress failed to approve a budget before the fiscal year started, then the issue became a political battle when Republicans gained control of the U.S. House. A continuing resolution was finally approved in April giving the federal government funding until September.
The $25 million grant still hasn’t been awarded; the FTA will only publicly say grant awards should be announced “soon.” Blankenship said Thursday he believes it’s a case of the grant slowly working its way through all the steps required in the federal bureaucracy. He doesn’t feel the delay shows signs of trouble, although there’s also a chance the federal agency will cut all grants to reflect fewer funds from Congress.
“The reality is we may not get full funding,” Blankenship said.
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It is unknown if U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton’s lack of support for the awarding of the grant has affected the FTA’s decision.
Construction of RFTA’s bus rapid transit system is like a series of dominos. The first domino that needs to fall is the awarding of the grant. Without the funding, RFTA cannot buy the land it needs for new stations and parking lots. If it doesn’t possess the land, it cannot seek some of the land-use approvals and building permits it needs.
“It is becoming increasingly unlikely that staff will be able to complete all the steps required to begin construction on a significant portion of the project in 2011,” Mikes Hermes, RFTA’s director of facilities and trails, wrote in a memo to the board of directors for Thursday’s meeting.
RFTA needs to buy four properties for its expansion project. Appraisals have been performed on the properties and now those are being reviewed by an independent appraiser, as required by federal law. Once reviewed, the appraisals will be sent to the FTA for further review. RFTA cannot negotiate purchase of the property only after that process is completed and the grant is awarded.
It also needs to go through the land-use review process in Eagle County and Basalt for a park-and-ride and bus stop in El Jebel; it needs to go through the land-use approval process in Basalt and Pitkin County for new and expanded facilities in Basalt; and it must apply to Glenwood Springs for facilities there.
It still needs to be determined who pays for 106 utilities that need to be relocated as part of the construction.
Meanwhile, RFTA is dealing with structural questions at the same time it is embarking on a major expansion. The agency hired a consultant for $53,000 to conduct an organizational assessment. The consulting firm will interview staff and board members to determine if the agency is running as efficiently as possible.
That’s a perpetual topic of debate among a board split between members who want to micro-manage and others who want to set policy and let Blankenship lead.
RFTA is also trying to fill to vacant senior staff positions. The agency is interviewing to fill a director of human resources and risk management position that has been vacant since August 2010.
In addition, RFTA’s director of finance, John Tangen, abruptly left last month. Blankenship said he couldn’t discuss the personnel matter.
RFTA has also kicked off a study to assess the feasibility of circulator service within Carbondale, El Jebel and Basalt. “The study will examine various alternatives for routes, schedules and headways, and determine forecast ridership, costs and funding options,” said a memo to the board from RFTA planning director David Johnson.
The study is unrelated to the bus rapid transit expansion. The study for circulator service will cost $39,000. A federal grant supplied $24,000. RFTA, Carbondale, Basalt and Eagle County are covering the balance.