Fuel costs could hit bus riders in 2009
CARBONDALE ” Bus riders in the Roaring Fork Valley might get hit by the high price of fuel next year.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will consider bus fare increases of 10 to 15 percent for the 2009 fiscal year, which starts in December. “There was a 2 percent increase in 2008, however fuel costs have gone up considerably and fares need to keep pace with rising operating costs,” RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship wrote in a memo to the organization’s board of directors.
The board will rule on a fare hike during budget talks in October and November. Currently, it costs $4 cash to ride from El Jebel to Aspen on a bus. One of the best deals offered by RFTA is a 40-punch pass for $28. It takes four punches to ride between El Jebel and Aspen.
Soaring fuel costs have been both a blessing and a curse for RFTA this year. The agency’s expenses skyrocketed because of the high cost of diesel fuel, but ridership also has skyrocketed because commuters couldn’t afford to drive personal vehicles. Blankenship said RFTA budgeted $1.8 million to buy fuel in 2008. It has already added $500,000 to its fuel budget and will likely need an additional appropriation of up to $400,000 before the end of this fiscal year, he said.
On the flip side, high gas costs spurred a record number of riders this year. Current projections are for about 4.75 million passengers this year. Last year was first time the agency topped 4 million.
More passengers means more money from fares. “Due to higher ridership, fare revenue is on a pace to exceed budget by approximately $400,000,” Blankenship said.
The possible fare hike comes at a time when RFTA is struggling to meet demands for service. Buses were jammed to standing-room only on popular routes, like the El Jebel-to-Aspen line, during peak commute times last winter and summer.
One of RFTA’s biggest challenges is hiring enough drivers for all the buses it needs. Blankenship said overtime for drivers will exceed the budgeted amount by $300,000 to $400,000 this year. That will be partially offset because “straight time driver costs” will come in about $200,000 lower than expected. There weren’t enough drivers to fill that “straight time,” so existing staff was paid overtime to fill shifts.
Overall, Blankenship and his staff anticipate that operating costs will exceed the budgeted amount by about $1 million this year. However, unanticipated revenues like extra fares and deferred capital projects will offset the operating budget deficit, Blankenship said. He told the board of directors Thursday the agency shouldn’t have to dip into reserves to a large degree to balance the 2008 budget.
The agency’s budget outlook for 2009 is unsettled. RFTA will ask voters in towns from Aspen to New Castle and in Pitkin and Eagle counties to approve a sales tax increase in November and a $44.5 million bond issuance. The sales tax revenues would be used to pay off the bonds over 30 years.
RFTA is also seeking more than $21 million in grants from the Federal Transit Administration.
If it gets the funds, it will buy new buses, increase frequency of service, upgrade bus stops and keep making road improvements designed to reduce drive time between Aspen and downvalley towns. Operating revenues also will rise if the tax hike is approved.
The $61.2 million expansion plan is called Bus Rapid Transit but informally known as RFTA on steroids.
“People have some concerns about our BRT plan,” Blankenship said. “The reality is we’re going to be forced to grow.”
He claimed that the BRT plans allows growth in a systematic way that makes sense rather than a “hodge-podge, catch-as-catch-can” method. Some critics have questioned if RFTA is using its funds wisely; others challenge the notion that mass transit should be subsidized. The campaign by opponents and proponents of the ballot measure is just starting.
RFTA’s 2009 budget, which must be approved in November, will assume no tax increase. If voters approve the Nov. 4 measure, adjustments will be made to the budget to reflect the expansion plan.
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Mountain Rescue Aspen is expanding its education efforts to try to keep people safe in the backcountry during winters and summers. It will host a workshop on Dec. 8 titled, “How to Plan a Backcountry Tour.”