RFTA board endorses fare hikes | AspenTimes.com

RFTA board endorses fare hikes

To keep up with skyrocketing fuel costs, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board voted Thursday for a 10 percent increase in bus fares starting in 2006.Most board members said the cost of diesel fuel, which has risen 50 percent since Hurricane Katrina devastated oil refineries on the Gulf Coast, outweighed the prediction that ridership would fall 4 percent because of the higher fares. The RFTA staff had recommended the increase.Board member Dorothea Farris, a Pitkin County commissioner, said fuel costs leave the agency with little choice but to increase fares. The board’s decision came as it reviewed a draft budget for 2006, and a public hearing must still be held before the decision is official.Only Anne Freedman, who also serves as a Basalt councilwoman, opposed the hike. She said RFTA should do everything it can to avoid fare increases because they lead to lower ridership numbers.Agency CEO Dan Blankenship said the 4 percent figure was an estimate. It could be less if more people consider buses because of the high cost of regular gasoline, he said.With a 10 percent increase, the price of 20-punch passes would increase from $12.50 to $13.75, while a punch pass worth $40 would cost $27.50, up from $25. On the other end of the scale, the cost of a season pass from Glenwood Springs to Aspen would rise from $550 to $605; Carbondale-to-Aspen season passes would go from $540 to $594; and passes from El Jebel to Aspen would increase to $577, up from $525.The fare increases would add about $61,000 extra to RFTA’s coffers, or 5 percent more revenue than this year, according to figures in the draft budget. Operating costs in 2006 are expected to be nearly 10 percent higher than 2005, with higher fuel costs contributing to half of that increase.Freedman broached the subject of charging seniors, saying a “great majority can afford it.” The idea received a lukewarm response. People 65 and older now ride anywhere in the valley for free.Blankenship and Susan Atwood, RFTA’s finance director, presented the rate-increase options to the board, including the effects of a 20 percent hike. That is the optimal amount to keep pace with fuel costs and other expenses, Blankenship said. Such a hike would likely lead to a net revenue increase of about $173,000, but an 8 percent drop in ridership.The 10 percent figure that is on track to be approved is the minimum increase RFTA can take and still remain solvent, Atwood said. Current predictions in the draft analysis have the agency staying in the black at least through 2014.Also included in the budget is a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for employees, compared to a 4 percent raise this year. Farris called for that figure to be higher. Salaries overall in 2006 will be an estimated 4 percent higher as RFTA brings back merit bonuses after suspending them in 2004 and 2005.Workers will also see a 10 percent increase in health insurance benefits and 6 percent more in workman’s compensation benefits.Other expenses in next year’s budget include about $1 million for trail construction and other related work; about $420,000 for facility improvements, including park-and-ride stations; $206,000 to rebuild bus engines; and $28,000 for information technology.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com

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