RFTA on life support? | AspenTimes.com

RFTA on life support?

The agency that runs the bus system from Aspen to Rifle claims to be facing a financial crisis so great that it raises “doubts as to the long-term sustainability of the organization,” according to its finance director.

The Roaring Fork Transit Authority’s revenues aren’t enough to support the labor and bus upkeep needed to maintain existing service, according to a report by finance director Heather Copp. She wrote that the shortfall projected in a long-term plan shows deficits averaging $3.5 million per year.

RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said it will require an election for a sales tax increase, cuts in service of between 25 and 50 percent or some combination of the two to get the agency out of its bind.

“With the financial resources we have now, it’s not working,” said Blankenship.

Revenues less than expected

Most of the Roaring Fork Valley passed new sales taxes or, in the case of Aspen, dedicated existing sales taxes to running the bus system in November 2000. The decision was hailed as a major breakthrough for operating the transit system.

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The frequency of bus service was beefed up to honor campaign promises, but RFTA got into a bind almost immediately because the economy faltered. Sales tax revenues throughout the valley dropped significantly after Sept. 11, 2001. Revenues in the past two years have been less than expected.

Blankenship said he believes the agency has responded appropriately. For 2004, for example, the agency pared some service, froze wages and eliminated some positions. Even with those cuts, it needed additional financial aid from upper-valley governments to balance its budget without sharper cuts in service.

RFTA employs about 225 people at the peak of winter. It uses about 65 buses, some of which are more than 20 years old and need replacing, according to Blankenship.

Along with decreasing sales tax revenues, money from fares has also dropped. Ridership fell 10.5 percent in 2002. It dropped another 1 percent last year.

Jacque Whitsitt, chairwoman of the RFTA board of directors, said the agency’s problems are purely a result of the economy going sour, not poor fiscal planning.

“Dan has always been penny-wise and extremely frugal about how this organization runs,” Whitsitt said.

Ballot question possible

Frugality has only gone so far. The board of directors will be asked by Blankenship and Copp on Thursday to give direction on whether bus service should be cut or the agency should plan to approach voters.

“I’d personally like to give voters an option,” said Whitsitt.

Blankenship said that he would recommend popping the question to voters as early as this year, if the board favors seeking a sales tax increase.

Copp and Blankenship said RFTA’s biggest problem is that its revenues aren’t great enough to create a fund to replace buses or build up a reserve for operating expenses. Ever since sales taxes were dedicated to bus service in November 2000, the agency has aimed to “keep one nostril above water,” said Blankenship.

He noted that the Colorado state government, the Colorado Department of Transportation and even the federal government were hit by the economic downturn. “We’re not unique. We’re not the only organization facing significant problems,” he said.

Copp’s report to the RFTA board said: “Little more can be done with existing revenues than to ‘patch’ together the system.” Even if the economy turns around and sales tax revenues increase, RFTA will still have difficulty creating the bus replacement fund needed to make up for deferred action, she said in an interview.

The board of directors will take its first crack at the issue Thursday at a meeting scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. in Carbondale Town Hall.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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