Push for RTA gaining momentum | AspenTimes.com

Push for RTA gaining momentum

The push for a Rural Transportation Authority appears to be gaining momentum in the Roaring Fork Valley.

In a straw poll of elected officials from Aspen to Glenwood Springs who gathered Wednesday night to discuss the move showed the majority were in favor of proceeding with the steps that could make it a reality.

As an upshot of Wednesday’s meeting, the officials will take a canned resolution back to their respective councils, commissions and boards that, if approved, will authorize creation of an RTA to fund transit in the valley. The proposal could go to voters in a special election in May 2000.

At the very least, action on the resolution will be a good indicator of just which governments will favor the RTA, and which won’t.

The resolution does not bind the governments into any funding mechanism. “Members can back out at any time,” said Dan Blankenship, director of the Roaring Fork Transit Agency, which operates the valley’s bus system.

Still, Jacque Whitsitt, a Basalt trustee, wonders if voters are ready to establish another transit authority in the valley. “The voters could say, now we have three transit authorities – two without transit systems,” she said.

Currently, the valley has RFTA to run the bus system, and the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, which has yet to operate a transit system. RFRHA is exploring the options for transit on the 35-mile former rail corridor it owns between Glenwood Springs and Aspen.

Whitsitt urged the group to consider an explicit ballot question that would lay out the funding mechanism for the RTA. Under a law passed in 1997, RTAs in Colorado can levy a $10 vehicle registration fee and a .4 cent sales tax.

Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland said the ballot question needs to make it clear that the RTA would not fund construction of a transit system, like commuter rail, without explicit approval of the voters. “We won’t build rail without a vote,” he said. “Why not say so?”

As laid out by transit consultant Jim Charlier, the concept of the RTA, its membership and boundaries, could be introduced in a ballot measure next May. Then, following the outcome of transit planning by RFRHA and a Record of Decision in the fall that will choose the transit alternative for the corridor, another question could be put to the voters laying out the cost of such a system as well as improved bus service and the funding mechanism for them. Who should RTA include? Charlier and his staff have crafted RTA boundaries realizing that all the jurisdictions in the district may not buy into the transportation district. The RTA would cover and area from Aspen to Parachute. For the purpose of creating the RTA, however, local governments between Aspen and Glenwood Springs are considered the active players.

“We realize not everyone will be in, but that’s where we’ll start,” Charlier said.

Representatives of both Carbondale and Garfield County – trustee Susie Darrow and Commissioner John Martin – have expressed skepticism about the authority.

“Our concern is money,” Darrow said. “The .4 cent [sales tax] is almost a half a cent. That’s a lot.”

Carbondale would have to ante up considerably more to an RTA than the $15,000 it currently contributes annually to RFTA, she noted. “I’m not sure that will roll. It’s possible it will be a hard sell.”

Martin questioned just how much a sales tax in unincorporated Garfield County could raise toward an RTA. Martin also has a philosophical difficulty in funding a transit system that takes Garfield County workers away from where they live to affluent Pitkin County, which he has maintained does not pay its fair share of the social services costs created by a commuting work force.

Currently, Pitkin County, Aspen and Snowmass Village pay the lion’s share of RFTA’s subsidy, through a 1 cent sales tax collected in Pitkin County that generates $5.6 million. An additional half-cent sales tax contributes $1 million. Glenwood Springs coughs up more than $500,000 a year (most of which is used to run Glenwood Springs’ in-town bus service); Basalt, $230,000; Eagle County $94,000; Aspen $186,000; and Carbondale, $15,000.

Each jurisdiction would be required to support the RTA according to how much benefit they derive from the service, and that would mean, for Carbondale at least, proportionately more money out of its coffers.

Glenwood Springs will likely pay more than what it is contributing to RFTA now, as well. And that makes sense to Ireland. “Glenwood Springs has the biggest sales-tax base and will get the greatest benefit,” he said.

Local governments won’t know the level of service or percentage of sales-tax revenue each will be required to give until next fall when the final transit choice for the RFRHA corridor is made.

Charlier assured the group cost allocations will not be built into the intergovernmental agreement that will move the ballot process forward. Governments which sign the RTA resolution will be asked to pen an agreement laying out the structure of the RTA and the wording of the May ballot question.

“We will work that out later, so the governments are not committed,” Charlier said.

The officials also discussed funding alternatives. While the present law allows only the $10 registration fee and the .4 cent sales tax, that could change in the coming legislative session.

Speaker of the House Russell George said the law could be amended to include other options such as a flat visitor fee charged on motel and hotel rooms. George said he could support such a fee, but not a property tax.

George also praised the efforts of the local governments to form an RTA. “I have to tell you, I’m really impressed with what you’ve done. This goal has to be one of the most visionary things public officials can do. It all sounds right to me,” he said.

And the best way to make changes in current legislation is to have “something on the ground” – a working RTA, he added.

George said he is eager to push for those changes if it will further the cause, “as a last thing I can do for all our constituents.”

George, of Rifle, has said he will retire at the end of his term in the state legislature next year.

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