Buses between Aspen, Snowmass to remain free | AspenTimes.com

Buses between Aspen, Snowmass to remain free

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – All-day bus service between Aspen and Snowmass Village will remain free through the upcoming ski season. And at least two-thirds of the revenue from sales tax dedicated to mass transit will be put into a savings account for when and if Aspen voters decide on how to solve the congested and controversial Entrance to Aspen.

Those were the decisions the Elected Officials Transportation Committee (EOTC) made Thursday in Snowmass Village. The committee is made up of Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village elected officials. It disperses about $1.5 million each year from a half-cent transit tax.

Offering free bus service between Aspen and Snowmass Village from Oct. 1 to the end of the ski season in April will cost the upvalley governments about $360,000, which includes free fares to Woody Creek as well. The EOTC had committed to fund the free transit service until Sept. 30.

After the funding expires next spring, there is no money left in the EOTC’s discretionary fund to continue the free service. Transportation officials who work for the three governments have been directed to find a new revenue source to pay for free bus service between the communities.

Officials agreed the EOTC offering the free service isn’t financially responsible and can’t continue to be funded if other transportation initiatives take priority.

“It’s not sustainable,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield. “Our whole system is not sustainable without raising [bus] fares or coming up with a new revenue source.”

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Hatfield said he will not support continued free bus service between the resorts next year without a different funding source in place.

Pitkin County Treasurer and CFO Tom Oken said the EOTC’s projected revenues for 2010 are about $1.3 million. One-third of that, roughly $445,000, is the discretionary fund. And by earmarking $50,000 for next year’s ESPN X Games transit service, that discretionary fund can’t fund free Aspen-Snowmass bus service for the rest of the year, officials agreed.

It’s estimated that it would cost $583,000 to provide the free service from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2010, Oken said.

The remaining two-thirds of the EOTC’s budget, about $890,000, goes into the capital reserve fund. That portion will be earmarked into a “lock box” for future Entrance to Aspen funding.

The transportation committee has about $6.7 million in the bank, and future revenues will give it a bonding capacity of between $15 million and $20 million over 25 years that could pay for a possible Entrance to Aspen solution, according to Oken.

During its retreat this week, the Aspen City Council decided its top 10 goals of the year. One of the goals: Preparing a ballot question for November 2010 that will ask city voters if they want a solution to the Entrance to Aspen. That question will likely have several alternatives on it, and the ones with the most support will be pursued.

Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland said money needs to be secured so that if a direction is taken, officials are prepared to pay for it and possibly get matching federal or state funds for the Entrance to Aspen.

“We need to take advantage of whatever opportunity there is,” he said, adding the savings account doesn’t presume a preferred alternative for the entrance. “The dedication of money will be as voters see fit … obviously if the voters don’t want to do anything we can ask them if we should release the money for something else.”

Snowmass Town Councilman John Wilkinson was the lone dissenter in creating a dedicated account for the Entrance to Aspen. He voted no because he said there is currently no public support for it, nor a timeline or a preferred alternative selected.

“Show me a project and then we’ll pay for it,” he said.

Hatfield said the Entrance to Aspen was the driving force behind voters approving a half-cent sales tax in 1993 but no consensus among the electorate has been reached.

“That question lies with the Aspen voters,” he said.

Members of the EOTC board spent hours discussing how much money is available for all of the valley’s myriad mass transit offerings, including future expanded services by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, capital improvements and the growing operating costs associated with them.

“We’re not going to have a pretty picture for quite a while,” Ireland said of state assistance. “Are we building a system we won’t be able to operate?

“We have to think about marginal costs of new services.”

He added that as more riders are put into the RFTA system, the more it’s going to cost.

“Every rider walks on with a subsidy,” Ireland said, adding that continuing to fund the free bus service between Aspen and Snowmass will deplete reserves. “We don’t have a plan to fund that subsidy … Are we using up our capital? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it seems to me that we are.”

It became clear during the discussion that there isn’t enough money to do it all, and at some point, a single revenue stream might need to be created, as well as acquiring as much state and federal funding as possible.

The committee agreed the EOTC’s funding priorities need to be focused on managing congestion and devising a long-term, comprehensive plan for mass transit in the Roaring Fork Valley.

csack@aspentimes.com