RFTA seeks tax hike as more get on the bus | AspenTimes.com

RFTA seeks tax hike as more get on the bus

ASPEN ” The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) will ask voters Nov. 4 to approve funding for a major expansion to help it deal with climbing ridership.

Proponents say the 0.4 percent sales and use tax increase is a wise investment that will increase the frequency of bus service, reduce travel times and get cars off Highway 82. The tax would add 4 cents onto every $10 of taxable sales. The question is Ballot Issue 4A.

“I think the election is all about relieving the pressure of standing-room-only buses and moving forward on a plan to upgrade the service,” said Jacque Whitsitt, chairwoman of a citizens’ group called Affordable Transportation Solutions.

A critic questions if the multimillion dollar cost of the expansion is worth the benefit

“Transit handles a fraction of total area person trips, which should be the real benchmark of cost effectiveness,” said Jeffrey Evans, director of a citizens’ group called Common Sense Alliance, a longtime player in transit issues. “Mobility for people who are too young, too old or too broke is a legitimate public interest, but if spending for transit is driven by perceived benefits in traffic congestion and environmental benefits which aren’t real, the public is basing their decisions on the wrong criteria.”

Voters throughout the region will settle the issue. Referendum 4A is on the ballots of Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle, as well as unincorporated Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County. The cumulative vote carries the day. In other words, an individual jurisdiction such as Snowmass Village could vote against the measure, but it would pass if voters overall approve it.

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Silt voters also will determine if the town should join RFTA as a funding partner.

Voter approval would allow RFTA to issue $44.55 million in bonds to make improvements. Those bonds would be paid off by the tax increase, which would also raise money increased operating revenues for RFTA. The agency also is seeking $21.3 million from the Federal Transit Administration for part of an expansion plan called Bus Rapid Transit.

If the local funding is approved, RFTA will buy 15 buses, implement a speedier system in which riders would pay their fare before loading, construct a handful of better bus stops that include real-time technology on bus locations and continue to implement traffic enhancements along the highway that gives preference to buses.

As a result, the bus capacity at peak hours would increase from 500 seats per hour to 1,000 seats per hour. Frequency would increase from the current one bus per 30 or 60 minutes to one every 10 minutes during peak hours and 15 minutes in off-peak hours.

The number of riders soared last winter because of tough driving conditions in the snowy winter and skyrocketing gas prices, according to RFTA officials. The agency anticipates hauling 4.75 million riders this year. Last year it topped 4 million for the first time.

Whitsitt claimed that RFTA needs to expand to keep pace with demand or more people will drive private vehicles and clog the over-burdened Highway 82. Bus service is a vital part of the public infrastructure, like roads and schools, she said.

“If you can’t get up and down this valley, it’s going to be a problem for everybody,” Whitsitt said.

Evans contends there is no information that supports the assumption that expanding RFTA at the proposed level is cost effective. The agency appears to need additional tax revenues simply to maintain current service levels or “keep running in place,” he wrote in a blog about mass transit issues. He suggested officials should concentrate on shoring up the existing service rather than embarking on a $100 million-plus expansion.

Evans also contends that RFTA service has a negligible effect on reducing traffic, although he and RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship have spared over numbers. Evans contends that if the Aspen area truly wanted to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, it would fix the bottleneck at the Entrance to Aspen. Private vehicles are allowed to use one lane in and out of town because other lanes are devoted to buses. He believes improved flow on more lanes for private vehicles would save more fuel, thus reduce more emissions, than investing millions in mass transit services.

Evans’ online blogs on transit issues can be found at http://www.aspenpost.net/author/common-sense-alliance.

More information on support for the ballot question can be found at http://www.FasterCleanerCheaper.com.

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