RFTA hopes feds will help with major expansion | AspenTimes.com

RFTA hopes feds will help with major expansion

ASPEN ” The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority hopes to score funds from the federal government as well as local taxpayers to fund a major expansion of the valley’s bus system.

RFTA will submit a grant application Friday seeking $21.3 million from the Federal Transit Administration, according to RFTA Chief Operating Officer Dan Blankenship. RFTA is seeking funds through a program called Very Small Starts, which is dedicated to mass transit.

“We feel we’ve got a good project. We’ve got a ton of ridership,” Blankenship said.

RFTA will also ask voters Nov. 4 to approve $40 million in bonds for the expansion. Voters in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Pitkin County and Eagle County will be asked to approve a sales increase of 0.4 percent to pay off the bonds. Carbondale voters will be asked a similar question. All those jurisdictions currently are members of RFTA and collect sales taxes to operate the bus system.

Silt voters will decide this fall if their town should join and help fund the bus agency. RFTA officials claim the organization cannot keep up with a surge in the number of passengers. The agency topped 4 million riders for the first time last year, and projects exceeding 4.6 million this year, Blankenship said. He credits the high price of fuel and nasty winter weather for driving up ridership.

Riders have reported that busy routes, like those between El Jebel and Aspen, are often standing-room-only on the morning and afternoon commutes during peak winter and summer.

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RFTA officials said they need additional funds to add service for existing passengers, let alone meeting future increases in demand.

RFTA’s board of directors approved the first phase of an expansion plan, called Bus Rapid Transit, in June. It features 15 new buses; technological improvements like real-time information on bus locations for waiting passengers; traffic priority projects, like intersection upgrades; an expansion of the maintenance facility; and bus station improvements designed to make them more inviting to riders.

The key to the plan is to use the new buses to provide additional service at peak times. The expansion plan is informally called “RFTA on steroids.”

The projects will cost an estimated $61.2 million. If voters approve funding this fall, RFTA will issue nearly $40 million in bonds to cover everything except the majority of station improvements, Blankenship said.

If the federal grant is secured, that money would be dedicated to those improvements, he said. The upgrades would be scaled back without the federal grant.

RFTA doesn’t expect to learn the fate of its grant request until sometime next year, after a new president is in office, and establishes strategy and funding for departments and agencies. FTA officials also want to see if the sales tax increase is approved by local voters, according to Blankenship. The federal grant is contingent on local cost sharing in the project. Approval at the polls doesn’t guarantee RFTA will get the federal grants, Blankenship said, but failure at the polls would definitely doom the grant.

The sales tax increase would pay off the $40 million bond and boost operating revenues by about $38 million between 2009 and 2017. The sales tax is projected to raise about $6 million next year, assuming a 3 percent increase in sales over this year’s anticipated revenues. If the economy goes into a sustained slump, revenues would be flat.

The campaign over the sales tax increase is just heating up. Jeffrey Evans, a critic of public transit subsidies, has started an advertising campaign questioning the need for the expansion.

An organization called Affordable Transportation Solutions was recently created to lobby for the sales tax increase, according to public transit advocate Jacque Whitsitt. “We’re ramping up,” she said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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