RFTA sticks to trail goal despite deficits | AspenTimes.com

RFTA sticks to trail goal despite deficits

reaffirmed a goal Thursday to complete a valleywide trail within seven years even though half the members labeled it as unrealistic.

The board voted 5-1 to stick with the goal of completing the remainder of the trail by 2010. Pitkin County completed the Aspen-to-Emma stretch this year. RFTA is contemplating finishing the stretch from Emma to Glenwood Springs.

But three board members who supported the goal admitted they don’t see how RFTA can find the funds to build a trail when it is facing budget deficits. The projected deficit for 2004 is $478,500.

Dan Richardson, a councilman from Glenwood Springs and the town’s representative to RFTA, said a draft 2004 budget presented by the staff was “sobering.” Although he previously supported RFTA’s goal of completing the trail by 2010, he now feels “it’s virtually impossible.”

Richardson said he would be unwilling to make cuts to bus service to create money for trail construction.

Snowmass Village Councilman Arnie Mordkin said operating the bus system is RFTA’s highest priority, not developing a train or building a trail.

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Aspen Councilman Terry Paulson voted outright against the goal of completing the trail by 2010 for a variety of reasons. He said he isn’t against the trail but he doesn’t support using the old railroad bed for any of it, and he doesn’t think it needs to be as grandiose as RFTA is planning.

Only Basalt Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt and Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris expressed optimism that the trail could be completed by 2010.

Pressure on RFTA

Two issues are adding pressure to RFTA to fund the trail. The first is a campaign promise made before the November 2000 election. The second is a legal obligation to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

While stumping for voter approval of permanent sales tax revenues in 2000, RFTA officials made verbal representations and used literature that said funding would be earmarked for trail construction and maintenance of the railroad corridor.

In the example given, $280,000 was pegged for trails and another $140,000 would go to corridor management. That represented 6.6 percent of the next year’s projected sales tax revenues.

But RFTA is only committing about 4 percent of revenues to those purposes, according to executive director Dan Blankenship. The culprit, he said, is reduced revenues.

As times have become leaner, funds have been used to keep buses rolling at the expense of the trail fund.

Tough times or not, RFTA must make transit improvements on the railroad bed by 2020 or be forced to refund $3 million to the state transportation department. That means completing a trail, a busway or a train on the rail corridor. Only the trail appears feasible within the next seven years, Blankenship said.

Fiscal responsibility

Mordkin said he wasn’t convinced that the 2020 deadline was reason enough to be wringing the budget for funds for trails.

“I’m not sure that giving $3 million back is fiscally irresponsible,” Mordkin said.

He said that it didn’t make sense to tap into already tight budgets, and potentially affect bus service, to avoid the $3 million penalty. Not one board member agreed with his logic.

In fact, Jon Fox-Rubin argued the opposite approach. He argued that it would make more sense to spend money on a trail, and have something to show for it, then forfeit $3 million to CDOT.

Whitsitt said she wants to dedicate 6.6 percent annually to trails and corridor management. That way the dollar amount will increase when overall revenues rise.

She said 2010 is a realistic goal because the funds RFTA can commit to the trail could be used as a local match for state or even national grants.

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

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