Aspen buses rolling into the red
Aspen’s free bus service will be running in the red by 2007, but Aspen City Council members aren’t sure what they want to do about it.The city faces operating expenses for its in-town bus system that exceed the sales and lodging tax proceeds dedicated to supporting it. Exacerbating the situation is the need for a new bus route along the Highway 82 corridor between the airport and town.”I don’t see the City Council cutting back on buses, so I don’t see expenses going down. That leaves us with one solution – more revenues,” City Manager Steve Barwick said. “So what do you want us to do?”A 40 percent hike in parking fees to help fund the bus system, scheduled to take effect in 2008, made some council members wince, and another staff suggestion – charging a fare to ride the city buses – wasn’t even acknowledged in the course of the discussion.”I’m opposed to fares,” Mayor Helen Klanderud said after Tuesday night’s meeting on the transportation budget. “I believe that the city bus service should be free.”A 50-cent fare on city buses, which include the year-round Cemetery Lane, Hunter Creek, Castle-Maroon and Mountain Valley routes, would generate $318,320 annually, according to a projection that takes into account an anticipated 35.6 drop in ridership that would result from charging a fee to ride the bus.The parking rate increase, including meters, permits and parking garage fees, would produce $550,000 in annual revenue. Rates downtown would increase from $1 to $1.50 for the first hour and from $8 to $10.50 to park for the four-hour maximum in the metered spaces. Parking fees last increased in 2002.The bus system will run up a deficit even with the planned parking fee hikes, staffers noted, but Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she couldn’t support a parking rate hike of that magnitude.”I really would have a hard time looking at the parking fee increase,” she said. “That’s not a favored revenue source for me.”Council members were, however, amenable to asking voters to extend an existing 0.25 percent sales tax dedicated to parking improvement. It expires in 2009. Extending the tax would generate about $1.2 million annually, keeping the Rio Grande parking garage from going into debt and providing about $875,000 to the transportation fund.Richards also suggested the city consider asking voters for authorization to keep excess property tax revenues and put them toward the bus system. Voters have already let the city retain excess taxes for five years to help subsidize the Aspen Recreation Center. This is the final year the city can hold on to the extra property tax collections for the ARC. The excess collections result when increases in property values generate more tax revenue than the city is allowed to collect under the limits of Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights law.City staffers have suggested a one-time transfer of $2 million from the housing development fund to pay for operation of a new Highway 82 bus route extending to the airport. It would serve about 1,100 existing residents of the corridor, plus anticipated new homeowners at the planned Burlingame Ranch housing. Currently, the area is served only by the buses that the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority runs up and down the valley.”The vast majority of the demand for this new route is affordable housing,” Barwick said.It’s not all city housing, though, Klanderud noted. The North 40 homes, the Aspen Business Center and the airport – all located in unincorporated Pitkin County – would also see improved bus service with the new route.”Can we expect any partners? What about, not just the housing at the ABC, but the businesses out there?” Klanderud said. “The airport obviously benefits from additional service there.”Is the city going to take responsibility for this increased financial burden, or are we going to look for help?” she said.The $2 million influx from the housing fund would keep the system solvent through 2009, city officials noted, but it doesn’t eliminate the transportation budget’s deficit in the long term.This year’s $3.1 million transportation budget has already been trimmed by $142,000 with the city’s decision to again curtail the hours of offseason bus service. That’s a cutback the council has contemplated, and usually enacted, annually for the past several years.”Frankly, I think you should make those permanent cutbacks in service,” said John Krueger, transportation director.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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