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Garfield County examines its mass transit options

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Should Garfield County continue to use bus service from the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, either as a member or not; find another operator to provide similar service; or strike out on its own with a smaller service run by the county itself?

Those are the basic questions the Board of County Commissioners will begin tackling Tuesday morning, in a special work session with members of the county’s staff.

“This is just the first one out of the chute,” said County Manager Ed Green on Monday, explaining that the commissioners expect to take months, if not longer, to figure out the answer to the puzzle of mass transit for the local working class.

The historic local transit operator, RFTA, has been in business, starting out exclusively in the upper valley, since the 1970s. It has operated under different names and with different operating guidelines through those decades, and has broadened its focus to include downvalley communities as Aspen’s workforce has been forced to move downvalley due to rising property values.

In a memo to the county commissioners, county staff members Lisa Dawson, Fred Jarman and Kent Long noted that the formation of the present agency came about after statewide legislation made it possible for local governments to create a “transit authority” across county and municipal lines.

But Garfield County voters rejected a proposal to join the authority in 2004, as have the towns of Silt and Rifle.

Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle all are members of RFTA, and each collects a special sales tax to fund the transit system’s service to its jurisdiction.

Garfield County, in recognition that a number of county residents make use of RFTA’s Hogback route to the western end of the county as well as its Roaring Fork Valley routes, has been contributing to the agency’s operations since 2007. According to the memo, the county has contributed a total of nearly $2 million over the four years, from $448,000 in 2007 to $614,000 planned for 2010.

But this year the commissioners decided to explore the idea of forming a Garfield County transit authority to serve the western communities, including Parachute and Battlement Mesa. RFTA has never served those two communities.

According to figures provided to the staff by RFTA, joining the existing transit agency would cost the county roughly $16,000 to hold a membership election.

Assuming the voters gave their approval, the annual costs of membership would be approximately $1 million in sales tax revenues, if the tax was set at 4 percent, and $270,000 in license tax fees, at $10 per vehicle fee. The vehicle fees are required for all member jurisdictions as a way of raising revenues, and the sales tax rates differ among the jurisdictions.

To start up a county-run transit system, according to the memo, would cost anywhere from $6.9 million in capital startup costs and $570,000 in operating costs for a route from Glenwood Springs to Rifle; to $7.6 million startup and $762,000 operating for a route from Glenwood Springs to Parachute.

“The numbers,” said Green, “came pretty much direct from RFTA” to come up with those figures.

Green said the county is awaiting responses to a “request for information” sent out to transit agencies around Colorado, in order to provide the commissioners with estimated costs of a third-party operating agreement.

But, according to the memo, based on RFTA operating data as applied to MV Transportation, which provides service to Black Hawk and Central City, a service of the type that the county is considering might cost approximately $430,000 per month.

A fourth option, using RFTA on a contractual basis rather than joining as a member jurisdiction, is projected to involve an increase of fees at 6 percent per year, the memo states.

That would mean that, by 2015, the county could be paying as much as $821,000 per year for RFTA service.

The discussion of the memo, and related matters, is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday in the commissioners meeting room at 108 Eighth St. in Glenwood Springs.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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