Bus systems fret about funding | AspenTimes.com

Bus systems fret about funding

Naomi Havlen

Bus service funding in the Roaring Fork Valley hangs in the balance as Congress bickers over how much to give Colorado for replacing buses and building new transit facilities.On Thursday night the Senate Appropriations Committee announced it intends to give Colorado’s busagencies less than half the money they are requesting for their budgets, although Roaring Fork Transportation Authority Director Dan Blankenship says he considers the number just a starting point and is cautiously optimistic more money will be allocated.The appropriations decision is expected to reach the floor of the U.S. Senate sometime next week. Jeanne Erickson, executive director of the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies, said the decision is “not a good indicator for the future,” but she notes that discussions are not over.Erickson said the organization requested $48 million for 2006, hoping to get about $12 million in funds for new buses and transit facilities around the state. On Thursday night the Senate Appropriations Committee decided to allocate just $6 million for Colorado.But Blankenship said he was forwarded a message from Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard’s office on Friday stating that the committee has only earmarked half of what is considered to be available for bus and bus facilities upgrades in 2006. The Senate will wait to see if the House of Representatives authorizes the other half of available funds.Blankenship said he and other transit agency officials and lobbyists “somewhat panicked” when they heard the $6 million figure. For RFTA, that would mean just $367,000 would go into its 2006 budget – enough to buy just one new bus, Blankenship said.”It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but it would buy us one bus, and there’s 20 out there that need to be replaced,” he said.He said the Senate Appropriations Committee may have left some room to increase the funding before the bill is finalized. There is about $400 million for bus systems around the country to replace buses and build new facilities, he said.The Colorado Association of Transit Agencies is a lobbying organization that was formed in 1997 to try to get funds for transit organizations all over Colorado. RFTA was one of the first CASTA members, deciding to join along with about 10 other transit systems in the state trying to avoid the expense of hiring individual lobbyists.About 30 transit systems in the state now belong to the coalition.RFTA had tremendous success using CASTA as a lobbyist that first year, reaping $2.5 million for 1998. It also purchased 16 new buses in 1993 after receiving $3 million.”We’ve had varying success over time, sometimes getting over a million to a low of $700,000,” Blankenship said. Last year the coalition got $7 million, of which $464,000 was allocated to RFTA.The coalition is having a conference in Snowmass Village on Sept. 5 through 9, and one topic of discussion is how to stay together as a coalition to get government money more efficiently.”When we do the hard work, the congressional delegations get a tidy package of requests we’ve put together each year as a coalition,” he said. “All they have to do is decide on a total amount.”Blankenship said RFTA has in the neighborhood of $5 million to $6 million worth of bus replacements it would “love to be able to take care of right now, in equipment that’s past its useful life.” New buses have improved emissions, are cheaper to maintain, more comfortable for passengers and easier to operate for drivers.”This [federal] funding is really important,” he said. “We have to bring local funding to bear to solve lots of problems, and federal funding makes it easier to replace equipment. We’re facing significant challenges.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com