RFTA bus fare increase too hot to handle | AspenTimes.com

RFTA bus fare increase too hot to handle

CARBONDALE – A proposal to raise bus fares and reduce service divided the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s board of directors Thursday.

The board was deadlocked after 90 minutes of discussion. One faction was dead-set against hitting riders with a price increase without exploring other options first.

“There are other ways of meeting our needs, in my opinion, without putting it on riders,” said Ed Cortez, RFTA board member and a Carbondale trustee. “The role of a transportation system is to move people at an economic price.”

RFTA board member and Snowmass Village Councilman John Wilkinson supported the fare increase and fall service cuts that agency staff labeled “relatively minor.” Wilkinson said action is needed to pare down a projected $1.4 million funding shortfall forecast by year’s end.

“I was ringing the alarm bells in November,” he said.

Wilkinson proposed a 20 percent budget cut for the 2009 fiscal year because sales tax revenues started falling when the recession hit. The rest of the board didn’t go for such a drastic cut.

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It was clear again Thursday that the board majority wasn’t ready to slice service come fall. A decision on the proposed fare increase was deferred until August.

RFTA is on solid financial footing so it doesn’t need to panic. It has $3.2 million in reserves for its operating budget, finance director John Tangen said.

RFTA president and CEO Dan Blankenship said proposing a fare increase and service cuts “pains me,” but he reminded the board that they wanted to see options for whittling down the anticipated deficit for the year.

Blankenship said the uncertainty caused by the recession makes it difficult to forecast sales tax revenues for 2010. “We may need to cut even further,” he said.

For the remainder of 2009, RFTA’s staff recommended a bus fare increase of $1 for all its zones of operation. The fare to travel from Aspen to Glenwood Springs would have increased from $6 to $7; to Carbondale would have increased from $5 to $6; from El Jebel would have increased from $4 to $5; and Basalt’s fare to Aspen would have gone from $3 to $4.

On average, the increase would have been 22 percent, according to a staff analysis. It would have raised an additional $132,194 in revenue, but at a cost in ridership. The higher price would have forced an estimated 9 percent of riders off the bus, the staff concluded after applying a standard industry formula for fare increases.

In addition, the staff proposed three service cuts: reducing midday service on the Grand Hogback route between Glenwood Springs and towns to the west; reducing express buses in the Roaring Fork Valley; and delaying a beefed-up winter schedule for two weeks. Those cuts would result in a savings of $147,000.

RFTA board member and Glenwood Springs Councilman Dave Sturges objected to the cuts to the Grand Hogback. He said curtailing service would make it harder for workers in western Garfield County to get to jobs in Glenwood Springs. He said he needed to talk to his full council before voting on the proposed service cut.

Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley also objected to making the cut without hearing from New Castle. The town is a member of RFTA but its representative wasn’t present at the meeting.

The proposal to cut service failed despite a vote of five in support and two against. It required a “super-majority” of six votes in support. Blankenship said it would be too late to implement service cuts for the fall service, which begins in September, if the board revisited the issue in August.

RFTA could still implement the fare increase in September if the board approves it in August. The board asked for a significant amount of additional information for its next meeting to help determine a solution.

One alternative that RFTA will consider in August is charging more to provide service from Rifle, Silt and unincorporated Garfield County. Those jurisdictions aren’t official members of RFTA, meaning they don’t collect sales taxes to support the bus system.

Some board members said they wouldn’t support service cuts for members while RFTA was subsidizing service for non-members.

RFTA board member and Basalt Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt said financial pressures will force the agency to charge prices that reflect the cost of service to Rifle, Silt and Garfield County.

RFTA’s board has for the last decade threatened to charge those jurisdictions more or reduce service. The recession might make it a reality in 2010.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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