Decline in bus ridership … a sign of future?
The Roaring Fork Transit Agency is facing a $200,000 to $500,000 deficit this year.
But does that shortfall indicate there is little economic viability for mass transit in the Roaring Fork Valley, or is it just the result of a bad ski season? Depends on whom you ask.
Tom Newland, executive director of the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, says RFTA’s budget shortfall is simply a “glitch,” the result of a poor ski season matched with a less-than-stellar season in the business community.
“I wouldn’t call it a fair indicator,” Newland said. “I’d look at the long-term trends … so there will have to be a couple more years of flattening or decreased ridership for me to really look at it as a factor. I think RFTA’s overall ridership will continue to grow.”
Aspen City Councilman Tony Hershey contends that RFTA’s financial troubles are exactly why a rail system shouldn’t be built.
“If we’re losing money with a bus system, why the heck would we build a train?” asked Hershey, referring to the capital costs of establishing a system and the maintenance costs to keep it running.
RFTA general manager Dan Blankenship, however, agrees with Newland’s position that the budget shortfall is derivative of the economics of the past year and shouldn’t be viewed as indicative of larger public transportation trends.
“We’re kind of on the financial bubble at all times and this year, because financial revenues are down, we’re in a spot,” he said. “But I think we’ve seen the worst of the declining revenues.”
Blankenship attributes the agency’s budget shortfall to two factors – reduced fare box revenues and reduced sales tax revenues. He said both are the result of an off ski season in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Fewer visitors translates into fewer bus riders and fewer dollars flowing into the local economy, he said. Nevertheless, the estimated shortfall is startling, even to Blankenship, who is now in his 10th year with RFTA.
“Since I’ve been here, I haven’t seen a decrease in fare box revenues like this year,” he said. Through May, valley ridership was down 1.5 percent and fare revenues were down 5.6 percent. Through April, revenues derived through sales tax were down 2.65 percent below what RFTA budgeted.
The bus agency’s 1999 expected budget deficit is further exacerbated by its longstanding lean fiscal status. While the agency does have a $2 million reserve fund, which Blankenship said will be borrowed on in order to right this year’s budget, he believes the practice is not fiscally responsible in the long term.
In order to sustain operations in the black for the years to come, Blankenship said the greater Roaring Fork Valley will need to create a tax district, called the “Rural Transportation Authority.” That district could stretch from Aspen to Rifle, and disperse the transit subsidy burden among all the communities and counties that make up the district.
“What [RFTA’s deficit] does show me,” Newland explained, “is how vulnerable RFTA is in its financial situation. They are right on the edge with funding right now and have been for a few years now – this inability to overcome that slump is indicative of the shortfall.
“Usually, transit agencies can account for flat or declining ridership. But unfortunately, they are so lean on their revenues that they can’t even afford to do that, which is disheartening. They really need some help.”
However RFTA decides to address its fiscal woes, Hershey maintains that an updated fleet of buses is the only way to boost ridership numbers.
“We have to upgrade the system,” Hershey said. “We need more, better, cleaner, and cooler buses. … People want a faster, easier way to get to work. If it’s hot and takes an hour and 45 minutes to get from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, people are going to stay in their cars.”
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