Ballot wording battle brewing |

Ballot wording battle brewing

The Roaring Fork Transit Authority kicked off its campaign for a sales tax increase in November by alienating one of its most important constituencies Thursday.While writing a ballot question for the November election, the RFTA board of directors declined to heed a plea by proponents of a valleywide trail to earmark funds for trail construction. Trail proponents predicted that omission will hurt RFTA at the polls.”I think you are on the brink of making an awful mistake,” warned Dale Will, the executive director of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program.RFTA’s board decided to seek a 0.2 percent sales tax increase in Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Eagle County. Pitkin County will also ask its residents in a separate question to dedicate additional sale tax revenues to RFTA. All of those jurisdictions currently contribute to the transit agency.Residents of New Castle, Silt and unincorporated Garfield County will be asked to approve a new sales tax in return for bus service.RFTA wants the additional revenues to bail its ailing bus system out of financial trouble. The agency is forecasting a $1.5 million shortfall in 2005 without the tax increase.Proponents of a valleywide trail lobbied the RFTA board at its monthly meeting Thursday to use the election to make a legally binding pledge to dedicate funds to the trail.Four years, no additional trailWhen voters initially approved a sales tax for RFTA in 2000, RFTA officials said during the campaign that some of the funds would be used to build a trail along the old Rio Grande Railroad right of way. But a dollar amount was never specified at the election.Four years later, Will noted, RFTA has yet to build a single mile of trail.The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program has extended the trail down to the county line at Emma. Construction between Emma and Glenwood Springs has stalled.Jacque Whitsitt, a former RFTA board member and current chairwoman of the MidValley Trails Committee, said the trails fund got raided when RFTA ran into financial difficulties. She said she fears that will happen again if funds aren’t earmarked in the ballot question for trails.”We found that when push comes to shove, trails come in second,” Whitsitt said.Whitsitt stressed that she will personally support RFTA’s proposal regardless of the ballot question wording. But she advised writing a question that would lock RFTA in, rather than pray that the policy to complete a trail remains in place with future boards. The RFTA board set a nonbinding policy after the 2000 election to spend 6.6 percent of its sales tax revenues on trail construction and management of the railroad corridor. Although the agency hasn’t poured concrete, it has kept its promise by spending funds on design and engineering – getting itself in a position to start building a trail, according to RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship.But the lack of visible progress has demoralized trail proponents. Basalt resident Bernie Grauer said he supported the 2000 ballot question in part because he wanted to see the trail completed. If RFTA stuck to its policy to devote 6.6 percent to the trail, it would allocate $281,000 annually, Grauer said, but that hasn’t happened.Some people feel RFTA carried out a “bait and switch” maneuver in the election by promising one thing but doing another, Grauer said. And that puts RFTA credibility into question, he added.Basalt resident Peter Frey agreed. “I hate to tell you, but I think you violated your trust. You said you were going to do it and you didn’t do it,” he said.Like Will, Frey predicts trouble in November.Mordkin calls the bluffRFTA board member Arnie Mordkin challenged their reasoning. The only way trail proponents will ever see the valleywide trail completed is by approving RFTA’s proposed sales tax increase, he said. So Mordkin couldn’t understand why trail proponents would vote against the tax increase.Other RFTA board members said the issue boiled down to trust. Trail proponents must have faith that the agency means to make good on repeated promises to complete the trail by 2010, RFTA board chairwoman Dorothea Farris said. Blankenship said approval of the proposed ballot question would raise an additional $4 million for trail work over the next five years. At current funding levels there would be only $1.1 million available.”We’re poised to get a trail finished by 2010,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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