City of Aspen, Pitkin County ready to ask voters to financially back RFTA
Two upper-valley governments are backing a potential ballot measure this fall that would increase property taxes to fund the local bus system and other multi-modal transportation systems.
Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, and the team that’s been assembled to form a 20-year plan for the transit system met with Aspen City Council on Monday and the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday. They both gave their blessings to move forward with a November ballot measure.
The plan would take RFTA into 2040 with more than 70 improvements within the system, and account for population and ridership growth. Planners are establishing a financial plan for the next three decades and, at a minimum, it’s estimated to cost $134 million, but will likely be higher.
Government officials are still deciding whether voters should be asked to tax themselves 3 mills or 5 mills, which would generate each year $10.5 million or $17.5 million, respectively.
“We are in a formative place and ready for decision making,” said Ralph Trapani, a consultant with Parsons, a firm hired by RFTA. He explained that the city of Aspen was the first jurisdiction within RFTA’s service area to be asked for its support.
And he got it, with some caveats and concerns.
City Manager Steve Barwick said it’s going to be a tough sell, and public outreach and education is going to be key. He said he thinks there may not be enough time to do that effectively before November.
“I think it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “Property taxes are flat-out harder to pass than sales taxes.”
Bill Ray, principal of WR Communications in Denver, who is part of the RFTA team, told Barwick and council that it can be done if jurisdictions support and participate in the campaign. He noted that the summer is when the messaging begins but most people aren’t listening yet.
“Generally, voters pay great attention to these types of issues from Labor Day through Election Day,” Ray said.
Barwick softened his stance a bit.
“I just want you to have the best chance possible,” he said. “We’ll see. It will be interesting going forward.”
Councilman Adam Frisch said he supports asking voters this year.
“(RFTA is) truly the lifeline of this community,” he said. “I’m not sure what the downside is in asking.”
Councilman Bert Myrin agreed.
“Without RFTA this community would not survive,” he said.
Blankenship said the RFTA board of directors wanted feedback from the government entities involved in a ballot measure before its retreat in May. That’s when the board is expected to decide whether to put a question to voters this November.
If the RFTA board decides to go for a mill-levy increase, about 33,000 voters will be deciding the ballot question. RFTA’s jurisdiction includes New Castle, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, portions of Eagle County, Basalt, unincorporated Pitkin County, Snowmass Village and Aspen.
“We hope to get to everybody before the retreat,” Blankenship said, adding that with state and federal funding uncertain and projected growth in the valley, he and his team are trying to position RFTA well into the future. “We’re hopeful people recognize the value of RFTA.”
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