Rail vote this fall looking less likely
The two newest members of the Aspen City Council renewed their call for an election on rail this fall, but with opposition from two of their colleagues on the council and wavering support from the other, the chances of a vote are diminishing.
Tony Hershey and Tom McCabe said last week they expect to see a question about rail on the ballot this fall. And they both expect newly elected Mayor Rachel Richards to join them in passing a City Council resolution that puts the issue before the voters.
“Tony and I are dedicated to putting the issue before the voters,” McCabe said. “And Tony, Rachel and I all promised it during the election.”
Their call for a ballot question comes just days after a report from the city manager’s office indicated about $620,000 in city funds has been spent on rail over the last three years. Contributions from the half-cent transportation sales tax, which is collected countywide, contributed another $1.8 million to the tally on rail.
“I wanted this information so we would have some idea about what’s being spent, and now we do,” said Hershey, who asked for the breakdown of expenditures last month. “What we need to do next is see if we have the financing.”
In order to secure funding to build light rail from the airport or Brush Creek into town, voters throughout Pitkin County need to give local government bonding authority so it can borrow money against the transportation sales tax. State law limits ballot questions about bonding to the general election each November or other times individual communities normally schedule elections. Aspen elects City Council members every other year in May.
If voters aren’t asked about rail this fall, the next available time for a ballot proposal on rail funding is November 2000, according to Aspen City Clerk Kathryn Koch.
And, last fall, Pitkin County voters indicated they want a say on the issue. An advisory ballot question approved by voters called for an end to rail studies, at least until the four-laning of Highway 82 is completed, if financing for rail has not been approved by November 1999.
Hershey and McCabe said they would like to see whether there is any point in continuing work on planning rail at this time. A recent survey by the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, the organization funded by local governments that is in charge of studying transit options, revealed two-thirds of valley households aren’t interested in improving the public transportation system at all.
Hershey said if voters in Aspen are willing to continue with the rail studies, he’ll curb his opposition; otherwise the rail corridor between Aspen and Glenwood Springs should be held until a time when people are willing to seriously consider rail.
“We’ve got the corridor,” he said, “so if we need to build a train 30 or 40 years from now, we can.”
McCabe said he realizes that it may be October before some of the information that’s needed to understand the cost and ridership implications of rail versus expanded bus service versus no transit improvements. He would nevertheless like to see the voters have their say, even if the ballot question doesn’t involve funding.
But Mayor Richards isn’t so sure November is the best time to ask the voters to decide anything about transportation. She is particularly concerned about people’s frustration over construction of a roundabout on Highway 82.
Richards likens the roundabout to the city’s decision to begin a paid parking program several years ago. Paid parking was implemented on a trial basis, with voters deciding whether to keep it or end it after it had been in effect for several months. Public opinion leading up to its implementation was mostly negative, but once people saw the program in action, they endorsed it by an overwhelming margin.
Similarly, Richards would like to see some time elapse between an election on rail and completion of the roundabout. “Voting before people have had a chance to test the roundabout could be very prejudicial,” she said.
Richards also believes the vote needs to be countywide, because that’s the only way its funding can be authorized. An Aspen-only vote would carry no real weight on the funding question, though a negative result would certainly weigh heavily on the fate of the project.
Richards would like to have all the studies finished and recommendations made before going to the voters. “The outcome of the 1996 vote on the proposed parkway through the Marolt property was a commitment for the city to do the research and bring back a plan to the voters,” Richards said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
But McCabe notes comments Richards made at election time, when she said that she heard the voters’ sentiments about rail loud and clear.
“I think we’re all starting to get sensitive to the fact that spending money on things like the Entrance to Aspen movie is pissing people off,” he said.
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