City transit needs boost in finances | AspenTimes.com

City transit needs boost in finances

Abigail Eagye

Aspen’s Rio Grande Parking Garage needs a $1.5 million repair, and the parking improvement fund, which would cover the cost, is facing an average annual deficit of $300,000 once a 0.25 percent sales tax expires at the end of 2009.Similarly, the city’s parking and transportation fund, which pays for local free bus service, is looking at an annual deficit of more than a million dollars per year in the near future.Those predictions assume the city will raise parking fees in 2008. Without a fee increase, the shortfalls are expected to be even higher.The dire forecast prompted the council to add a question to the November ballot asking voters to increase the portion of the city sales tax dedicated to the parking and transportation fund from 0.25 percent to 0.45 percent. If approved, the overall sales tax in Aspen, which includes state-imposed taxes, would increase from 8.6 percent to 8.8 percent in 2009.Randy Ready, assistant city manager, told the council that the problem lies in the fact that the cost of operations is rising faster than revenues.”The revenues for the [parking and transportation] fund are predictable,” he said, rising around 3 percent a year. “What we’re faced with is an increase in transit expenses of closer to 10 percent a year.”A number of factors contribute to the predicted shortfall. Some of them are one-time costs, such as the garage roof, while others are increases in ongoing operational expenses.Increased cost of labor and fuel in particular are driving up operational costs, as is the city’s mandate to replace existing diesel buses with hybrid buses. Standard diesel buses cost about $300,000, while the hybrids run around $630,000, at current rates.”They’re more costly but have been very popular because they’re less noise, more fuel efficient and less polluting,” he said.The parkingThe leaks at the parking garage are so serious that the entire roof must be replaced. It’s a one-time expense estimated at $1.5 million dollars, but it begs the question of what to do with the underused Rio Grande Plaza on top of the garage, which includes a grassy area that needs regular watering.”Generally, it’s not a good idea to mix uses of something that requires a lot of water, like trees and grass and lawn, with something whose worst enemy is water,” Ready said of the park-on-top-of-the-garage setup.The leak has prompted a separate discussion about what to do with that space, Ready said. That discussion has included suggestions of building city or county offices above the parking garage in lieu of a grassy park. A private group has also suggested a performing arts center atop the garage.While that debate continues, the problem of repairing the garage roof remains imminent, Ready said needs to happen “sooner rather than later.”Wherever the money comes from to replace the roof, the projected budget deficits in the parking improvement fund and the parking and transportation fund remain.The parking and transportation fundReady said that “fees are assumed to go up on a five-year cycle just to keep up with inflation. But even with those fee increases, we’re still facing those deficits.”Those fees cover general maintenance, not capital improvements like the roof repair, he said.The problem is that if fees increase too dramatically, people find ways to avoid parking in the garage, reducing the revenue from the fees.In the short term, that’s not a problem. But the money in the parking and transportation fund covers the cost of local, free bus service. The city contracts with the Roaring Fork Transit Agency to provide the local services, but the city covers the entire cost through the fund. As the cost of providing bus service goes up, and as the city adds new routes, the cost of service is beginning to outpace the revenues from the current tax and fee structure.The issue is confusing because RFTA’s valleywide service is funded differently from local routes. The city of Aspen covers local routes such as Hunter Creek, Cemetery Lane, Castle-Maroon Creek (to the hospital, schools, the Aspen Recreation Center and Aspen Highlands), the direct-to-Maroon Creek route and the East End dial-a-ride routes, as well as the music school route in the summer. The city also has plans for a West End route, which will serve the Aspen Business Center, the airport, Truscott, the Country Inn and Burlingame.Currently, the city’s funds are adequate to cover costs, but in the near future, that will change, so city staff approached the council about a long-term solution, such as raising the tax.”We don’t need to discuss service cuts in 2007,” Ready said. But with the current system, he said, in 2008, “we go into the red and would have to look at cutting routes and returning to diesel buses.”The proposed tax changeCurrently, the .25 percent sales tax (which is part of the city’s total 2.2 percent sales tax) is dedicated solely to the parking garage.If approved, the increase to .45 percent would expand slightly to include transportation costs.”It’s an ongoing need that does not appear to be going away if we’re serious about providing quality transit,” Ready said.The current 0.25 percent portion of the city sales tax “sunsets,” or ends, Sept. 2, 2009. The proposed 0.45 tax does not have a sunset date.”It covers known needs well into the future for both of those funds,” Ready said.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is abby@aspentimes.com