Bus expansion plan ‘ill advised’
ASPEN ” Citizens charged with financial oversight of Aspen taxpayer money say a ballot measure this fall asking voters to pay for a multimillion dollar expansion of bus service throughout the valley is ill advised.
The fall ballot question to expand service at the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority shouldn’t be posed to voters until more information is presented, the subcommittee of the Aspen City Council-appointed citizen budget task force told elected leaders Monday.
The proposal, which has been approved by the RFTA board of directors, would ask voters throughout the Roaring Fork Valley to approve a sales tax increase in November to fund an expansion of the bus system and keep it financially fit for the next 12 years. Voters in each jurisdiction would be asked to approve a 0.4 percent sales tax increase.
RFTA planners and consultants have worked for two years on an expansion plan called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The first phase will feature 21 additional buses to increase frequency at peak service.
RFTA scaled back its expansion proposal after finding skepticism among local elected officials that the grandest plan could be funded, according to RFTA planner Kristin Kenyon.
But some members of the city’s task force transportation subcommittee say that RFTA hasn’t provided adequate information on how an expanded bus system will reduce travel times for commuting workers, as well as how it will reduce the need for new parking facilities and enhance air quality in Aspen.
“… We believe that RFTA must be able to show that these benefits can reasonably be achieved with the requested funding,” reads the memo prepared by the committee to the council. “In short, based on the lack of statistical and other supportive information from RFTA on the scaled BRT plan, we do not believe that RFTA has met its burden of proof in either case, and the subcommittee cannot recommend that the City Council support the requested sales tax increase, particularly since Aspen will be asked to bear between 35 and 45 percent of the overall tax burden.”
Torre, a member of the subcommittee, said he and his colleagues are not suggesting that RFTA is withholding information but that perhaps the plan has not been studied enough to convince voters to approve a tax increase.
RFTA officials said they have provided the information the subcommittee has asked for and, short of doing more studies that would delay the plan further, time is running out, especially considering the current expansion hinges upon scoring $24.5 million in federal grants.
“We are crunched for time,” Kenyon said. “Time is of the essence because fed money is locked in. We are very close to losing that opportunity.”
RFTA officials said they are working on getting more information to the subcommittee within the next two months. The citizen budget task force has not made a recommendation to the council and hasn’t accepted the subcommittee’s position.
City Councilman Jack Johnson said the subcommittee’s recommendation appears to be more political than it is analytical. He said he wants the task force to focus on how to improve bus service in town and the fiscal constraints around it.
Mayor Mick Ireland said it would be helpful to wait for the additional information before the task force makes a recommendation on whether to support a ballot measure.
The RFTA board of directors last Thursday approved a plan that would phase in nearly $62.5 million in capital improvements and boost operating revenues by about $37 million between 2009 and 2017.
To help jump-start the expansion of the bus system, RFTA plans to seek voter approval to issue $38 million in bonds. The bonds would be repaid through the revenues of the sales tax increase at an annual rate of about $2.6 million over 30 years.
For RFTA customers, the $100 million expansion would mean more buses making nonstop trips between downvalley towns and upper valley jobs and ski areas. New bus stations would be more inviting and use high-tech information systems to track buses. Parking would be modestly expanded. Lanes and intersections on Highway 82 would be tweaked to reduce the travel time for buses and make it more competitive with traveling by private vehicle.
The sales tax hike and bonding issuance will be wrapped into one question for the November ballot.
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