Bus service cuts, fare hikes help RFTA balance budget
CARBONDALE – The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority balanced its recession-damaged budget for next year, but riders will bear a big burden.
The bus agency is relying on fare hikes and service cuts even though higher prices and reduced convenience could erode its already falling ridership.
RFTA’s system-wide ridership was down by 346,672 passenger trips, or 9 percent, for the year through September. Initial indications are it fell by a greater percentage in October after a first wave of fare hikes were implemented, according to Dan Blankenship, CEO of RFTA.
RFTA raised its cash fares by $1 in October. That resulted in an average increase of 22 percent for riders traveling between Aspen and downvalley towns.
If the current trend continues, ridership will be down to 4.37 million this year from 4.85 million last year, according to Blankenship.
The agency’s board of directors voted Thursday to implement a second fare increase affecting other riders. The prices of the monthly and annual passes, often purchased by businesses as an employee perk, were increased by 10 percent.
Blankenship said it is standard in the transportation industry to anticipate a 4 percent drop in ridership for each 10 percent increase in fares. Even so, the fare increase for the monthly and annual passes is supposed to increase revenues by $75,000.
RFTA will also pare service in 2010 to reduce expenses. Buses on the Hogback route between Rifle and Glenwood Springs will be eliminated at some times. There will be fewer express buses and fewer back-up buses for service in the Roaring Fork Valley. Fewer express buses means longer travel times on the trip between Aspen and downvalley towns. Fewer back-up buses means a greater likelihood that passengers will be required to stand on crowded buses at prime commute times.
RFTA is looking at total service reductions of about 12,600 hours and 252,100 miles, according to budget documents.
There was little discussion at a board of directors meeting Thursday on the implications of the budget decisions on passengers. Instead the directors combed through the staff’s recommendations to balance the budget.
“These are not things the board enjoys. These are not things the staff enjoys,” Blankenship said, referring to the fare hikes and service cuts.
Nevertheless, he said it was a good exercise for RFTA staff to take a hard look at its operations and figure out what could be eliminated or reduced. “We’ve not been in a position as dire,” Blankenship said.
The recession has consumed a good share of RFTA’s revenues. Sales tax revenues collected throughout the valley will be down an estimated $2.3 million, or 18 percent, in 2009 from what was anticipated. RFTA is budgeting for another 2 percent decline in 2010.
Fare collections will sag by about $870,000 this year. RFTA is counting on another 2 percent decrease in 2010.
RFTA’s board approved a budget with $16.31 million in general fund expenditures. That includes all the operating expenses to keep the buses rolling between Aspen and Rifle. The agency dipped into its capital reserve fund for $275,000 to remain on track with capital projects, such as repaving part of the Rio Grande Trail.
The authority’s total budget is $38.67 million. That includes all the contract service for Aspen, Glenwood Springs and the Aspen Skiing Co. in addition to the valleywide service; all debt service; capital projects; and planning for the Bus Rapid Transit system, an expanded bus system envisioned to be completed by 2017.
Although RFTA’s revenues are falling, it maintained a $3.5 million operating reserve in the 2010 budget. That would allow the agency to absorb a 28 percent decrease in sales tax revenues and a 20 percent drop in fare revenues and continue operating, director of finance John Tangen said. “I think we are strong,” he said.
Blankenship credited Tangen for his thoroughness in going through the budget and reducing expenses. The budget was balanced without staff layoffs.
“Thank God we don’t have to give anybody a pink slip,” Tangen said.
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