RFTA CEO Blankenship receives 8% raise for ‘superstar’ performance at bus agency

RFTA's management of the Grand Avenue Bridge project and other transportation issues led to a raise for RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship.
Roaring Fork Transportation Authority/courtesy photo |

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority CEO Dan Blankenship received an 8 percent salary increase and three-year contract extension Thursday for what the board of directors said was “extraordinary” performance in 2017.

The RFTA board also said a salary survey showed Blankenship was earning 23 percent lower than the mid-range of public sector CEOs in Colorado.

“The bottom line is, our CEO is pretty much underpaid (compared with) his peers,” said Jacque Whitsitt, Basalt Mayor and RFTA board member.

Blankenship’s annual salary was increased to $171,175 from $158,496. He also received a bonus of $3,170, or 2 percent of his 2017 salary.

“The bottom line is, our CEO is pretty much underpaid (compared to) his peers.” — RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt

As part of his review, the organization hired an outside agency, Employers Council, to perform the salary survey. Blankenship was at the minimum level of the salary range for public sector CEOs in Colorado and at 77 percent of the midpoint of $206,300.

Whitsitt said the board always concludes at Blankenship’s annual review that he is a “superstar” but he doesn’t get paid as such. Part of that is Blankenship’s doing. Board members said he has traditionally only sought a 2 percent annual increase, which is more in line with what other RFTA employees typically receive.

Whitsitt said it was time to pay Blankenship to reflect his performance and, just as importantly, start paying what the position warrants since Blankenship won’t be there forever. She said RFTA doesn’t want to be faced with a $60,000 pay hike to get the position to a competitive rate.

Blankenship has been with RFTA for almost 29 years and has overseen significant growth in the regional transit system.

George Newman, Pitkin County commissioner and RFTA board chair, said Blankenship successfully steered the bus agency through a challenging year in 2017. RFTA provided enhanced, essential service between western Garfield County and Glenwood Springs during the Grand Avenue Bridge replacement, Newman said. Blankenship also oversaw an ongoing project that charts out RFTA’s path to funding existing operations and expanded service to meet growing demand at a time when federal and state funds are withering. RFTA hauled a record 5. 6 million passengers in 2017.

In other RFTA action:

• Kurt Ravenshlag was introduced to the board as the new chief operating officer. He has a master’s degree in regional and urban planning from Colorado State University and has extensive experience in expanding the transit systems in Denver and Fort Collins as well as operations in Fort Collins. Ravenshlag was hired at an annual salary of $143,520.

• The board of directors approved a long-discussed Access Control Plan for the Rio Grande Railroad corridor. The plan is a blueprint for how RFTA will handle requests from utility companies, developers, landowners and other governments on how to gain access across or through the rail corridor.

An initial draft created controversy because some downvalley governments felt it was too onerous. Aspen and other member jurisdictions were concerned that watering the document down would endanger RFTA’s rail banking of the corridor — essentially protecting ownership for ongoing uses.

The city of Aspen proposed wording that states the Access Control Plan is advisory only and RFTA retains its right to manage the corridor. “This will help ensure that provisions of the (plan) cannot be used to compel RFTA to do anything in relation to its management of the corridor that it would not otherwise be required to do by Colorado law,” according to a staff memo.

The RFTA board approved a first reading of the plan in April. It took staff members and attorneys for member jurisdictions another 10 months to iron out differences so a second and final reading could be approved. Unanimous approval rather than a simple majority was needed from Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs as well as Pitkin and Eagle counties. New Castle wasn’t eligible to vote on the issue.

• Blankenship informed the board that a policy about downvalley travel on buses in the free zone between Aspen and the Intercept Lot at Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 was changed after review earlier in the week. RFTA management had directed drivers to encourage riders to use the free service between Aspen and Snowmass Village for stops in the upper valley zone. That way, buses traveling farther downvalley could, in theory, make fewer stops and have a better chance of staying on schedule. In addition, some passengers have undertaken fare scams by saying they were heading to a stop within the free zone, but actually staying on the bus for a free ride.

The policy stirred some controversy among passengers who said it was too confusing and that they should be able to take the first available bus in the free zone, regardless of whether it is a BRT or local bus, which charges a fare for travel farther downvalley, or a free Aspen-Snowmass shuttle. RFTA management ultimately agreed, Blankenship reported to the board.

RFTA board chairman George Newman said he supported the change because customer service should come right behind safety in RFTA’s priorities.