Pitkin County candidates talk transportation taxes | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County candidates talk transportation taxes

Contributed reports
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a five-part questionnaire with the six candidates seeking three spots on the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners in the November elections.

Today’s question: What is your position regarding the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s (RFTA) ballot question, Referendum 4A, which asks voters of the district to approve a sales tax hike to pay for buses, facilities and road improvements?

I support Referendum 4A. As the alternate representative for Pitkin County on the RFTA board of directors, I have paid particular attention to the planning development of the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT), a highly efficient approach to bus transit. BRT is an established bus system that has been proven around the world, from Brazil to Australia, in areas challenged with gridlock.

BRT will provide for much greater frequency of buses up and down the valley, utilizing the existing roads that connect the communities and population points all along those routes. The buses will be equipped with the ability to control traffic lights, allowing buses to progress through the signals with priority, GPS locators to provide accurate arrival information at each stop, and Internet wireless available onboard.

Sheltered bus stops, similar to mini-train stations, will afford level, step-in boarding, with an easy, electronic-ticketing system.

All in all, it will be a bus system for the 21st century that will be more than competitive with car travel times. It will be a serious incentive for all of us to take the bus to work and home again.

RFTA does a remarkable job. We are fortunate that, unlike most western counties, we have an excellent bus system. RFTA is struggling with costs from ridership increases due to Aspen’s parking policies and high gas prices and does need our financial support.

But I hope to hear a good case during this election from Michael Owsley regarding why, as economic stormclouds gathered this summer, he as a county rep on RFTA chose to support an expensive expansion program, BRT?

Most of us are cutting back on spending, but sales taxes are assessed even on necessities like telephone and utility bills. Valley businesses are struggling, and sales taxes do influence choices. I shop at K-Mart in Glenwood instead of Target because the sales tax is less. Snowmass Village can’t support this RFTA increase because it will push them past the point where buyers choke.

Can we dedicate almost one-fifth of all sales taxes to a bus system? As gas, employee and housing costs increase are we at the point projected a decade ago where capital investment combined with operating costs makes a train cheaper than a bus?

My point … I want to vote for the RFTA tax increase. I just wish my opponent had been paying a little more attention and had given voters an easier tax increase to swallow.

Transit is a major issue, and if I am voted back onto the county board, voters will get leadership, energy, vision and reality checks again from this commissioner seat.

Some of you will remember RFTA’s roots in the Pitkin County bus system. Those old gray buses were named Trixie and Alice and Ralph, and coffee and donuts were available at the back of the bus. Ridership was measured in the thousands. Certainly we’ve come a long way, with a greatly expanded RFTA service area and 2007 ridership in excess of 4 million.

RFTA is truly a success in regionalism. Without it Highway 82 would be a parking lot, and the negative impact on Aspen’s economy would be huge. At the current rate, ridership for 2008 will be up 400,000 over 2007. RFTA is stretched to the limit to meet this demand, and the fundraising measure before us as voters is essential if we are to avoid even greater traffic congestion. Successful mass transit in the upper valley is not a luxury; it as a quality of life issue, even for those who rarely venture further than the roundabout. Downtown Aspen already handles more cars than most would like, and efforts to get people out of cars and into mass transit need everyone’s support. I plan to vote YES on 4A, and I urge you to do the same.

The timing is not right for a RFTA sales tax increase. Last December, when voting on the 2008 Pitkin County budget, I predicted tough times ahead. Last April, at a joint BOCC-Aspen City Council meeting, I spoke against placing the issue on the ballot, due primarily to the huge 41 percent Pitkin County property tax increase, in conjunction with national economic trends and continued escalation of the price of fuel and other commodities. At the same meeting I said, “You can’t afford to lose this election.”

As we all know, our national economy has gone from “seriously in trouble” to beyond definition, dragging the world economy down as well. Both Wall Street and Main Street are up to “their ears” in … debt (and bad debt), unemployment numbers grow daily, retirement funds are in the toilet, access to credit has dried up, and all “sectors” are cutting back on spending. Sure, governments, including transit authorities, need more revenues … yet the pain people of all walks of life are in is an equally compelling consideration when asking for a tax increase. This goes for locals as well as tourists.

Although I have been a supporter of every transit-related tax request for decades, I choose to be neutral in this election. As a RFTA board member stated recently, “Let the voters decide.” Tax increases (with the exception of critically unfunded needs) are appropriate when times are good … the converse when times are not. Forecasting, based on historic data and research, is the tool used for decision-making.

Finally, I find it hard to proactively support three general election tax increases in a row (2000, 2004 and 2008) for RFTA. It’s time for belt tightening, not tax increases.

From my perspective as an environmental scientist I support 4A and other mass transit projects because they can reduce energy consumption and our dependence on automobiles and oil, reduce traffic congestion, protect our environment by reducing air and water pollution and greenhouse gases and are more economical than traditional single-auto solutions.

My opponent has suggested that I am a one-issue candidate, an apparent reference to my emphasis on the environment (Aspen Times, Oct. 4). I think this shows his ignorance about the depth and breadth of an environmental approach in addressing issues that confront our citizens. My goal is to mitigate the negative impacts of human development in the Roaring Fork Valley and improve our quality of life. Failure to include a scientific perspective in policy and decision-making has led to much of the environmental degradation that now reduces our quality of life.

I take a broad view regarding mitigation of impacts to our valley, and I think it is important to consider a wide range of topics including: alternative energy to gas, oil and coal development; water quality and quantity; air quality; waste recycling; protection of wildlife and natural landscapes; and sustainable agriculture and transportation options. If this makes me a one-issue candidate in the eyes of my opponent, then so be it.

However, back to the topic of transportation, I believe that the bus system must provide adequate services to communities throughout the year and throughout the county, including Woody Creek, East of Aspen, Redstone, and Thomasville and Meredith. We should consider all transportation options, including buses, rail, bikes, etc., while looking to future transportation needs. Although a train may not be realistic in the Roaring Fork Valley, it may be feasible along Interstate 70. In combination with connector buses, such a system could efficiently provide regional mass transit.

The growth we are facing throughout the Roaring Fork Valley is placing continued demands on our environment. Nowhere is this more evident than on our roads ” and in particular our main transportation corridor ” Highway 82. For more than 30 years, RFTA has provided us with public mass transit to help alleviate the congestion, pollution and hazards of commuting up and down the valley. Reducing the number of cars on the road also helps alleviate the parking problems in the core. The benefits are many, from improved air quality to reduced stress. I know, because I have been riding the bus for all those 30 years.

Public transportation requires a change in habits, and must be spurred by convenience and cost savings. It is about improving our quality of life and our visitors’ experience at a time when every tourist dollar counts. Our environment, our safety and our commuting times will all improve if more people have convenient access to mass transit. The Entrance to Aspen is a critical issue for all of us, including our guests. Referendum 4A is an opportunity to look to the future, including planning for light rail.

We need to move forward right now into the 21st century with better, cleaner and

more fuel-efficient buses. Additional vehicles are needed to meet the demands of a regional ridership now exceeding more than 2 million a year. We need to increase the frequency of service, improve bus stations, expand park-and-ride lots, and improve intersections to give buses priority through bypass lanes and signals.

Finally, this funding gives us the opportunity to obtain federal matching funds for these local projects. I strongly support Referendum 4A. As your county commissioner, I will continue to work with elected officials throughout the valley to increase their support of RFTA and to pursue efficient modes of transportation for everyone.

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