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Elected officials agree: Look into a new Garfield County bus system

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

RIFLE, Colo. – A collection of mayors, city council members and elected officials in general agreed this week that it’s time for Garfield County to get serious about providing mass transit services to the towns in the western part of the county.

But whether that involves creation of an entirely new bus system or a new contractual relationship with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which now runs the Hogback Route between Glenwood Springs and Rifle, remains to be seen.

Officials from every community in western Garfield County met with the Board of County Commissioners at Colorado Mountain College’s new campus near the county airport on Feb. 1.

At that meeting, county staff members Fred Jarman, Lisa Dawson and Kent Long presented a report of possible estimated costs and other data related to the question of bus service, gleaned from research into existing transit systems and talks with mass transit providers.

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The presentation outlined a number of different possible scenarios for funding a Garfield County bus service, including the idea of imposing sales taxes of up to 1 percent and vehicle registration fees of up to $10.

A 1 percent sales tax alone, according to the presentation, could raise as much as $10.7 million if it were in effect this year.

The presentation also reported that the start-up costs for a county-run bus system, essentially mirroring the current Hogback route, could come to as much as $3.1 million, depending on the type of service desired and the kind and number of vehicles purchased. Such a system, according to the presentation, might carry annual operating costs of approximately $700,000.

The presentation also included a recitation of the history of Garfield County’s sometimes fractious relations with RFTA.

Among the county’s reasons for unhappiness with RFTA is the fact that RFTA’s Hogback service, for which Garfield County will pay RFTA $614,000 in 2010, has never provided service to Parachute and Battlement Mesa.

Several speakers noted that the Parachute area has long felt left out in the cold by the current arrangement and that there is an untapped pool of potential passengers there.

But, said Meredith Johnson of Battlement Mesa, passing a tax to support a new, Garfield County bus system might not be a practical goal right now.

“I think we’ve really got to find a way to work with RFTA,” Johnson said.

In addition to the lack of service to Parachute, more than one speaker at the meeting referred to a feeling that RFTA has unreasonably threatened to terminate the Hogback service if the county and the towns of Silt and Rifle do not become members of the transportation district.

Voters in Rifle and Silt, as well as Garfield County, have rejected RFTA membership in the course of several elections.

Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert said such threats put the towns and county in a “tenuous situation” and are “something that we can’t continue to live with.”

Commissioner Tresi Houpt pointed out that RFTA at one time subsidized service to Garfield County communities on its own, and that the Hogback service predated any agreement from the county or the towns in terms of financial support.

“We’ve put ourselves in a tenuous position,” Houpt said of the lack of accord concerning mass transit, who should pay and who should ride. “We’re not the victims.”

The two-hour meeting covered a range of other topics, including questions about how Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle would figure into the plans, since all three towns now belong to RFTA and collect taxes to pay for their bus services.

As the meeting ended, Commissioner Mike Samson called for a follow-up gathering in March to further discuss the subject, and urged the mayors to bring members of their town councils along.

“Let’s broaden our horizons here, to include some more people,” he declared.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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