Federal funds disappearing for Aspen bus system
Residents from Aspen to New Castle could be asked as soon as November 2018 to approve funding to maintain or possibly expand the regional bus system.
Roaring Fork Transportation Authority officials and consultants are convinced the federal funding that’s helped buoy the system in recent years won’t be available during the Trump administration over the next four and possibly eight years, depending on re-election.
“The point here is locals are going to have to pay a lot more going forward,” Ralph Trapani, a representative of Parsons Transportation Group ,told Basalt Town Council members this week. Parsons is undertaking a study for RFTA to determine ridership growth and options to meet the demand.
Once that study is completed, RFTA’s board of directors will determine what option to pursue, according to Dan Blankenship, CEO of the bus agency. One option would be pursuing a property tax increase among member jurisdictions, which are Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle as well as Pitkin and Eagle counties. Garfield County contributes some funds but isn’t a full member of RFTA.
A property tax increase of 1 mill would generate roughly $3 million annually, according to Blankenship. A ballot question would likely be for one or two mills, he said. Voters in the jurisdictions have previously approved sales tax hikes for transit. State law allows regional transportation authorities to collect as much as 1 percent in sales tax.
While some jurisdictions have room to increase the sales tax dedicated to transportation, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale are maxed out, so a property tax might be the next best option, Blankenship said.
RFTA received a $25 million grant to expand service and facilities through its Bus Rapid Transit system that was completed in 2013. That expansion helped the agency top a record 5 million riders last year.
While losing federal funds would be a blow, there’s potential for an increase in state funding.
The Colorado House of Representatives approved a bill Thursday that would put a question on the statewide ballot this November seeking 0.62 percent sales tax dedicated to transportation and fixing crumbling infrastructure (read more on page A14). The bill would generate an estimated $695 million annually. It needs to pass the state Senate and then earn approval from voters.
Some funds will be dedicated to mass transit, but RFTA cannot depend on that for an extensive amount of the revenue it needs, Blankenship said.
RFTA needs funds to replace buses and potentially switch to electrical buses, Blankenship said. The board must determine if it wants to seek funds just to maintain the status quo or expand its service to meet future demand.
Basalt officials voiced concerns this week that tax-wary residents might not understand why RFTA so desperately needs the funding. The key is to explain the situation directly and in simple terms, according to Councilman Gary Tennenbaum. The key for passage of a ballot question is to get “buy-in” right up front, he said.
Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer said she takes the bus to Aspen at least five days per week and must avert her eyes when she passes Aspen-Pitkin County Airport to avoid all the private planes lined up. She suggested that officials explore a way to charge a fee or tax on private planes for the carbon dioxide they produce. The revenue offsets the impact of the private planes by funding free transportation between Aspen and Rifle.
The broader point, Schwoerer said, is finding “creative ways of funding” the transit system.
Trapani said his firm’s work will include looking at funding sources, just as Schwoerer suggested. It’s especially vital, he said, because there are limits on the fares that riders will pay and the taxes locals can afford.
“It will get to the point where the locals can’t handle this any more,” Trapani said.
Trapani worked as a CDOT engineer to expand Interstate 70 to four lanes in Glenwood Canyon and oversaw the widening of Highway 82. He said ongoing funding of the transit system is just as vital. He noted that 40 percent of morning commuters to Aspen are on RFTA buses.
“If it wasn’t for Bus Rapid Transit and the dedicated bus lane, that economic engine, in my opinion, would stop,” Trapani said.
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Pitkin County administrators are proposing a more than $142 million budget for 2020, which is about $6 million less than this year because of fewer construction projects and capital improvements.